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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel – A fairy-tale opera in three acts (1890/93) [107.56]
Libretto by Adelheid Wette
Peter, a broom maker – Adrian Eröd (baritone)
Gertrud – Janina Baechle (mezzo-soprano)
Hänsel – Daniela Sindram (mezzo)
Gretel – Ileana Tonca (soprano)
Witch – Michaela Schuster (mezzo-soprano)
Sandman & Dew Fairy – Annika Gerhards (soprano)
Children of the Opernschule der Wiener Staatsoper
Students of the Ballettakademie der Wiener Staatsoper
Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
Bühnenorchester der Wiener Staatsoper/Christian Thielemann
Children’s Chorus Master – Johannes Mertl
Stage Director – Adrian Noble
Set and Costume Designer – Anthony Ward
Lighting Designer – Jean Kalman
Choreographer – Denni Sayers
Video Direction – Agnes Meth
rec. live November 2015 Wiener Staatsoper
Filmed in High Definition – 1080i/60i – 16.9
Sound Formats:
i) LPCM 2.0ch – 48kHz/24bit
ii) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch – 48kHz
Subtitles: English, German, French Spanish, Korean, Japanese
EUROARTS Blu-ray 2072984 [112.44]

Filmed live in November 2015, I was surprised to learn that Adrian Noble’s staging of Hänsel und Gretel is the first revival of Humperdinck’s opera at Wiener Staatsoper since 1944.

Apart from its excellent Wagnerian-influenced overture, Hänsel und Gretel is a work which I’m convinced many sidestep, considering it just a children’s opera, a common view of the work in many countries outside the Austro/German regions. A couple of years ago I watched the Digital Concert Hall with Sir Mark Elder conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie, Berlin in a concert performance of an abridged version of Hänsel und Gretel given in December 2006. Sir Mark had interspersed a number of children in with the orchestra, at one point handing the baton to one young child. Whilst not especially enjoying the concept of interfering with the business of the orchestra much the concert performance was extremely engaging. At the Berlin concert presenter Klaus Wallendorf summed up the appeal of Hänsel und Gretel by welcoming “children and former children.”

Wagner’s former musical assistant, Humperdinck shot to overnight fame in 1893 with his Märchenoper (fairy tale opera) Hänsel und Gretel. The opera, loosely based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, has maintained an enduring popularity continuing to enchant audiences today. Stage director Adrian Noble, known more as a theatre director, does direct some opera and here at Vienna he never loses sight that Hänsel und Gretel is a Märchenoper (Fairy tale opera) and “for many children the first opera they will have ever seen.” Compared to other performances I’ve seen, maybe to avoid scaring the children too much, the sense of fright from the characters and stage props seems to have been toned down a touch.

As the curtain opens the sight is the comforting drawing room of a Victorian house around 1890 the time the opera is set. It’s Christmas time and the middle class family with four children gather by the Christmas tree and log fire for a slide show on a magic lantern operated by the father; cutting edge technology at the time. Through these simple images on the projection screen the audience enters the magical world of Hänsel und Gretel. Designer Anthony Ward excels, creating a delightful set and conspicuous costumes which feel just right for the production. Especially successful is the Dew Fairy’s sparkling costume while the traditional emphasis on the dark scary forest has been maintained using both scenery and back projections.

The customary gingerbread house designed to lure children inside is replaced by an extremely large yellow and white cake covered in what looks like icing and marzipan and decorated with gingerbread biscuits, chocolate and cream. Impressive is the metal-look cage in which Hänsel is incarcerated by the witch and raised off the floor with a pulley. Rather disappointing is the witches’ ride through the clouds on a broomstick using video projections, and the crooked oven into which the witch is pushed suffers slightly from lack of striking flame effects.

As Hänsel and Gretel Daniela Sindram and Ileana Tonca are a fortuitous combination. Sindram is convincing in the trouser role as Hänsel, applying suitably exaggerated boyish mannerisms to her acting. Sindram’s rounded mezzo-soprano voice successfully conveys the vocal character of the adolescent as naturally as she is able. As Gretel, soprano Tonca sings with innate charm and supplies a suitably naïve manner to the part of the child. Gretel’s aria Ein Männlein steht im Walde is affectionately delivered. Highlights are Hänsel and Gretel’s joyous dancing duet Brüderchen, komm tanz mit mir and the gorgeously written Abendsegen (Evening Prayer) which sounds heavenly.

Played by baritone Adrian Eröd, the children’s father Peter the broom-maker, sings with an appealing, dusky tone but underemphasises the comedy drunkenness. Mother Gertrud, played by mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle, goes about her role in a rather unassuming way. Assured as the witch, mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster sings and acts well yet she must be one of the least frightening witches I’ve seen in the part. I certainly couldn’t imagine her eating children. Schuster delivers a spirited rendition of her Hexenlied, an opera highlight which is always good fun. In the roles of the Sandman and Dew Fairy, bright-toned soprano Annika Gerhards does all that is asked of her and the Sandman’s aria Abendsegen is a joy.

Christian Thielemann feels that influences of Wagner, mainly Die Meistersinger, are evident “wafting through the entire piece.” The Berlin-born maestro is in firm command of every orchestral detail of this lavish score, is clearly careful of not playing too loud and excellent in the demanding ritenutos and transitions which he mentions in the notes. The Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, glowing with expression, plays beautifully, savouring every note. Johannes Mertl has coached the children’s chorus well and Denni Sayers’ choreography is also rewarding.

Filmed live during performance at Wiener Staatsoper, the video direction by Agnes Méth is as satisfying as I have seen. The numerous video projection effects are remarkably successful, adding significantly to the onstage drama. There is an ideal balance of camera close-ups on stage, including footage of Thielemann and his players in the pit with some of the front row of the audience visible helping to communicate to atmosphere of a live performance. The High Definition quality image is vividly colourful and focused complemented by the choice of stereo and surround sound. The accompanying booklet in German and English includes a synopsis, interviews with both conductor Christian Thielemann and stage director Adrian Noble, a useful track listing and some excellent production photographs.

Congratulations are in order to Adrian Noble and his creative team for a treasurable production of Hänsel und Gretel royally maintaining the opera’s tradition of enchanting the audience both young and old.

Michael Cookson

 

 




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