before the opera begins we are shown pictures of starving
children as backdrop to the stills of the main characters.
During the overture there is footage, supposedly, around
WW1, of mass scenes and close-ups of more starving children.
Later still comes archive material from WW2 and even the
Vietnam War. The focus is clearly on children in exposed
as a socio-critical
opera – does it seem strange? No, maintains Susanne Schulz,
principal dramatic adviser of the Anhaltisches Theater
Dessau in an essay in the booklet for this issue. Fairytales
may always have been permeated with escapism, reflecting
dreams rather than reality, but Hänsel und Gretel,
Ludwig Bechstein’s version, which was Humperdinck’s source
for his opera, firmly focuses on the social misery of millions
of people during the 19th
century. Hunger is
the central theme in the first act and the triggering factor
for the children’s decision to go out into the woods. The
realism in the first act, where child labour is another
ingredient, is striking and stands in sharp relief from
the following scenes, which should be seen more as the
children’s dream visions. They do indeed dream in act II
but in this production it seems that the whole opera, apart
from the first act is a dream.
the children go to sleep in the wood they are nominally still
in their home, the fragments of the broken pot still on the
floor and they say their evening prayers in front of their
own beds. During the dream pantomime a row of children – even
a Lucia with candles in her hair! – walk in a procession
and line up at the back of the stage, where a big decorated
Christmas tree is erected. When Hänsel and Gretel went to
sleep before the pantomime they were dressed in their simple
every-day clothes; when they wake up the next morning they
are beautifully dressed. They find the gingerbread house
and are being watched from above by their parents, who had
been there in the wood/the family’s kitchen even earlier
to tuck them up in their beds. Now the father ‘disguises’ himself
by putting a cloth over his head and comes down to the children.
But it isn’t really he who is the Witch, it’s an ugly doll
that he lends his voice to and Hänsel and Gretel also have
dolls, symbolizing themselves. It is a kind of puppet theatre
within the opera. Consequently at the end of this scene it
is the Witch Doll that is thrown into the fireplace.
a dream opera of a fairytale opera may seem natural from
one point of view – but aren’t the elements of dream present
already? In the first act Gertrud, the mother, is as usual
an evil person – but probably not just to be evil: the financial
situation for the family is strained to say the least, not
being improved by Peter’s, the father’s, heavy drinking.
In the dream they are still frightened of Peter, but they
seem to get confidence in him in time and Gertrud, who is
in the background, looks at the children with warmth. At
the end there is a really jolly family reunion and all the
social problems seem solved. It is a fairytale and a dream,
but isn’t this too uncomplicated? Maybe not – a dream can
also be a vision but it is well childish if the problems
are to be solved by throwing the Witch in the fireplace.
Still – the historical, and not so historical, pictures aroused
intrinsically strong feelings but then they vanish almost
as soon as the topic is introduced.
reservations apart – and who says that opera’s most important
mission is to give solutions to problems politicians have
failed to solve – this is a thought-provoking, different
and engaging performance. Johannes Felsenstein and his ensemble
in Dessau are clearly making engaging productions and the
ensemble is obviously deeply involved. This is music theatre
that can only be achieved with a group of singers who get
time to creep into their roles and interact. Especially the
rapport between Sabine Noack’s Hänsel and Cornelia Marschall’s
Gretel is truly congenial. One believes in them. Both are
also excellent singers. Ludmil Kuntschew is more of a character-singer,
but that is what a good ‘Witch’ should be and with his flexible
face he makes the most of his opportunities. Alexandra Petersamer,
whom I recently saw as a splendid Brangäne in Tristan
from Dessau, has a classy voice, though as
Gertrud she has few opportunities to really show that. However,
she acted convincingly, first and foremost in the first act.
I hope to hear more of the glittering soprano Viktoria Kaminskaite,
whose Sandman and Dewman, were more or less the same character,
which they probably are in the real fairy-world. The children’s
chorus were good and Markus L. Frank led a well-paced performance.
I have always found the overture to this opera with its Wagnerian
sound-world too long – it takes almost five minutes before
it starts living – and having seen the opera in the theatre
in company with 1200 children in ages between 6 and 12 I
know that they feel the same. Once into the first act the
performance caught fire and then we were suddenly at the
end before one could say Jack Robinson.
sets are attractive and the opera is filmed in a rather straight-forward
way but with fine care for interesting details. My appetite
for more productions from the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau
has certainly been whetted.