Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel (1893) [138.00]
Angelika Kirchschlager (soprano) - Hänsel, Diana Damrau (soprano)- Gretel, Elizabeth Connell (mezzo) - Gertrude, Sir Thomas Allen (baritone) - Peter, Anja Silja (soprano) - Witch, Pumeza Matshikiza (soprano) - Sandman, Anita Watson (soprano) - Dew Fairy
Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Children’s Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera Covent Garden/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 12, 16 December 2008
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op.71[127.00]
Iohna Loots (Clara), Ricardo Cervera (Nutcracker), Gary Avis (Drosselmeyer), Miyako Yoshida (Sugar Plum Fairy), Steven Macrae (Prince)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera Covent Garden/Koen Kessels
rec. 26 November and 2 December 2009 set also includes rehearsal sequences, interviews and documentaries on The nutcracker and Fairytales
OPUS ARTE OA1090BD DVD [3 DVDs: 205:00]
This box links two recentish Covent Garden productions both of which were originally staged with an eye to the Christmas market and child audiences.
That of The Nutcracker employs the same choreography by Sir Peter Wright that was originally commissioned for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, but with new sets by Maria Björnson. The informative booklet note tells us that the original Ivanov choreography is largely lost, but that Wright has incorporated the preserved Dance of the snowflakes in his own choreography. Given the very conventional staging accorded to this number, the restoration would appear to be unwarranted. Elsewhere Wright brings plenty of life to the various set-pieces, incorporating the principals into the heart of the action. He has gone back to the original Hoffman short story on which the ballet was ostensibly based. The result not only brings a better dramatic cohesion to the very disparate plot but also provides a link between the two Acts which originally had hardly any connection with each other.
The dancing of the two young principals, Iohna Loots and Ricardo Cervera as Clara and her enchanted Nutcracker, is characterful and enchanting, as is Gary Avis, the cloak-swirling Drosselmeyer. On the other hand the Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy in the Land of Sweets are more conventionally balletic, and during the curtain-calls they are given what would appear to be unwarranted star billing; they don’t even appear until the Second Act. The Covent Garden orchestra has sometimes been accused of fielding second-rate players in their ballet productions - the principal oboist is clearly a different player from that seen in the opera - but their playing is superb here, with plenty of Tchaikovskian body and sweep under the sympathetic baton of Koen Kessels. He does however have an annoying habit of beginning some numbers before the applause for the previous one has subsided, which sometimes covers Tchaikovsky’s music. The audience are otherwise generally unobtrusive and well-behaved.
Maria Björnson’s sets are not as startlingly original as her designs for The Sleeping Beauty, but maintain the right sense of atmosphere. Her Christmas tree which grows in size as the characters shrink to confront the army of mice is a real treat. The only design issue which jars is the most unconvincing false beards for the Russian dancers - could they really not have been made to appear more realistic? Otherwise this is a generally conventional production which sets off the dancers well.
The production of Hänsel and Gretel, on the other hand, is updated. The original adaptation - and bowdlerisation - the parents do not send their children into the forest to starve - of the original Grimm fairy tale has long been a subject for psychological re-interpretation. David Pountney at English National Opera set the scene in the austerity of 1940s Britain. This production is also updated. Costumes and sets are austerely reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s although there are touches that are more recent. The opening act is set in a bedsit clearly provided for the homeless.
Angelika Kirchschlager is a very believable shock-haired boy, and brings Hansel’s boredom and mischief to life with great panache. By his side Diana Damrau is a little overly gawky, but the inter-reaction between the two children rings true to life. Elizabeth Connell is a downtrodden mother, exhausted rather than bad-tempered, and she sings with firmness and body. When the father arrives Thomas Allen approaches believably from the distance, carrying plastic bags that advertise well-known British grocery stores - has Covent Garden succumbed to product placement? He points his words excellently, but the same observation can be made regarding all the singers. The delicious profile of the music as delivered is picked up by the orchestra under a most responsive conductor.
The Second Act is set is a believable forest, but the scenery is confined to the backdrops and is not initially reflected in the acting area at the front of the stage. This may be the result of camera angles, as the front apron is better incorporated into the stage picture later. The offstage cuckoo is nicely audible, and the children become very realistically frightened as darkness closes in. The Sandman however is depicted by a rather unrealistic puppet. It is notable that (s)he sings sh! rather than zzt! during her solo. This is the standard English translation but is not the usual form we find in most German language performances - although actually the sound is preferable. The Evening Prayer is beautifully calm. The angels are depicted as heavenly transfigurations of woodland creatures who lead the children into a dream sequence where the children imagine themselves with their parents in front of a roaring fire and opening presents which consist of their one consuming desire - two sandwiches. This, like Pountney’s vision of down-and-outs in a London park, is an enchanting re-interpretation of the angelic guardians which does not go against the spirit of Humperdinck’s music in the way that the grotesque banquet served up by Richard Jones in this production for Welsh National Opera - subsequently exported to the Metropolitan Opera in New York - does.
At the beginning of the Third Act The Dew Fairy appears to be part of the same dream, a morning cleaner who is clearly over-dressed even for employment in a grand house. There is a miniature gingerbread house, pushed onstage by the Witch who is transformed here into the ultimate child molester. The veteran Anja Silja, once her plastic boobs are thankfully covered up, sings wonderfully although her high heels are a dead giveaway that she does not need the walking frame with which she is provided. She has a good line in horrifying cackles, and impressionable children will soon acquire a phobia about kindly little old ladies! In her delivery of Hocus pocus she sounds like Tosca mocking the dead Scarpia. She doesn’t get her broomstick ride, but instead treats us to a cookery lesson that would give Delia Smith nightmares. After she is pushed into her own oven, the children watch gleefully in a positively ghoulish manner, leading to a magnificent explosion and the collapse of part of the cottage set. The children’s chorus is rather underpowered, sometimes drowned by the orchestra, and the costumes seem to be fifty years later than Hansel’s and Gretel’s; like the carrier bags, these leave sense of indeterminate period. At the end they gruesomely eat the Witch now transformed into gingerbread. The curtain-calls are delightfully characterised, and the boos for Silja - which could not possibly be justified by her performance - are in the best pantomime tradition.
During the overture Sir Colin Davis looks like a curmudgeonly old grandfather, but after a rather uninflected opening from the horns he obtains thereafter sparkling and exciting playing from the orchestra. The use of German in this production is welcome; the two usual English translations - the old one by Constance Bache and the more recent one by David Pountney - suffer respectively from coy tweeness and jarring modernisms. The English subtitles are not rhythmically matched to the music but are rhymed sporadically.
The audience here are really on their best behaviour, sometimes laughing but never interrupting with applause even at the end of the overture. The First and Second Acts are linked in the usual manner, but the Third Act is relegated - somewhat unnecessarily, it would seem, as this is not a long opera - to a second DVD; by the way, there are three discs here, not the two claimed on the case.
You would have to be a hard-bitten child - or adult - not to be absolutely enchanted by both these performances.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

You would have to be a hard-bitten child - or adult - not to be absolutely enchanted by both these performances.