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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hansel and Gretel (1893)
Angelika Kirchschlager (soprano) - Hansel
Diana Damrau (soprano) - Gretel
Elizabeth Connell (soprano) - Gertrude (Mother)
Thomas Allen (baritone) - Peter (Father)
Anja Silja (soprano) - The Witch
Pumeza Matschikiza (soprano) - The Sandman
Anita Watson (soprano) - The Dew Fairy
Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier (Production)
Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Children’s Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Colin Davis
rec. live, Royal Opera House, London, 12, 16 December 2008
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ration 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surround
OPUS ARTE OA1011D [2 DVDs: 138:00]
Experience Classicsonline

The Royal Opera House’s Christmas treat for 2008 was a new production of Humperdinck’s evergreen Hansel and Gretel, amazingly the company’s first performances since 1937! I was lucky enough to attend a performance - the night this was filmed, in fact - and I brought one of my dear friends who was attending her first opera. We both enjoyed it immensely and happily the all-star production was filmed. It was relayed by the BBC on Christmas Day and the DVD has now arrived. Not only was the production a great one to attend as a first opera, but the DVD is perhaps as good an introduction to opera as one could hope for, a success on almost every front.

First plaudits must go to Colin Davis and the orchestra who anchor the set in the finest manner possible. The orchestral playing in the Overture is warm and sumptuous, a gorgeous Wagnerian glow hanging over the opening horn theme. The orchestra’s contribution is above praise throughout, helped by truly superb sound if listening on DTS Surround. I was really startled by how clearly everything was captured on all 6 speakers, so full marks to Opus Arte for that. Davis knows and loves this score and he shapes each phrase with real affection, from the gentleness of the forest twilight to the harrumphing dance that accompanies the witch’s hysterics in the kitchen. His is the hand of a master and it is he who got the warmest ovation on the night.

The singers are excellent too. We are more used to seeing Kirchschlager and Damrau playing vamps like Melisande or the Queen of the Night, but they assume the roles of the children with remarkable success. Their voices are still recognisable and distinctive, but they seem to have pared them down so as to match the innocence of their characters, feeling light and carefree for the first act, but conveying genuine terror in the central section of Act 2. They are well characterised as individuals too, Kirchschlager cocky in acting and bullish in voice, Damrau much more vulnerable in her actions and sweeter of voice. I loved the little touches like the poster of the ballerina on Greta’s bedroom wall and their cheeky laughter as they smash the milk-jug. One feels real affection for them in the darkness of the forest and we share their elation as they triumph over the witch in the high-jinx of Act 3. A triumphant pair of performances.

The same can be said for mother and father: Elizabeth Connell is super as the harassed mother, shrill and hysterical as she tells the children off, but jolly when she hears of father’s success. Thomas Allen swaggers jovially when he enters, rather tipsily, in Act 1 and his jolly demeanour seems to love the joke of the children’s mischief. Then he turns instantly as he hears of their trip into the forest, conveying the witch’s sinister ride with a touch of terror. They go very well together and we believe that these are two characters who have been married for most of their lives. The minor roles are taken well: one perhaps wishes that the Sandman had taken a little more time to warm up but the Dew Fairy is bright and clear, like the morning she describes. The children’s chorus are quite enchanting for their pianissimo entry, but finish the opera with the gusto and energy they should.

In the theatre I was not at all convinced by Anja Silja’s Witch because, to be blunt, she has almost no voice left. She sounds shrill and strained and there is little power left in what was once one of the great voices of the twentieth century. On the screen, though, I found her much more convincing. The piercing harshness of her voice actually helps her to convey the sheer nastiness of the witch, and her histrionic portrayal of the character is quite hilarious in close-up. The directors have been careful to depict her with all the everyday touches that children react against, including twin-set and pearls, outdated dress sense and a Zimmer which she clearly doesn’t need. The appealing thing about Silja is the way she throws caution to the winds, shrieking with delight as she prepares her brew and managing a marvellous scream as she is pushed into the oven. She is also deliciously sinister in her first interaction with the children, particularly as she whispers the spells. Somewhat bizarrely, Silja made her first entrances in the theatre sporting a massive pair of plastic bosoms over her cardigan. These were edited out for the TV relay, but readers will be pleased to note that they are reinstated for the DVD.

The production is very watchable, mainly conventional with costumes placing it some time in the mid 20th century. The house in Act 1 is poky and a little psychedelic, while the forest’s minimalist setting allows it quickly to be transformed into the witch’s kitchen, which sports two industrial ovens and a larder full of dead children waiting to be cooked into gingerbread. It is slightly comical but darkly sinister too, just like the original fairytale. The dream pantomime sets a festive scene where mother and father give the children Christmas presents of big sandwiches in front of a roaring fire. The angels themselves are sylvan creatures with dormouse faces, quite appropriate for the middle of a forest and charmingly effective. Plenty of little touches enliven the action, such as the Dew Fairy’s Kim-and-Aggie look as she cleans up the forest in the morning.

All told then this is a very successful issue, with only one major reservation: the price. In their wisdom Opus Arte have decided to release the opera on two DVDs. This is entirely unnecessary: an opera of this length could easily have been fitted onto one disc, even with the extras included. These comprise some picture galleries and interviews with conductor, cast and directors, together with rehearsal footage. They are fine, but they certainly don’t justify the price hike, and their brevity means that they need not have forced the opera onto another disc. This was a serious misjudgement, especially in the light of the strong competition for this opera on DVD (see here for review of Richard Jones’ excellent Met production). I fear Opus Arte may have priced themselves out of the market (Editor's note - the price is not that of two full-price DVDs, fitting into the low end of the midprice range).

Simon Thompson


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