27 Aug 2013

Hänsel und Gretel

This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.

Conductor Robin Ticciati demonstrates an impressive command of structure, both large-scale expanses and smaller musico-dramatic forms. The tempi are well-judged and the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra are unfailingly responsive as Ticciati skilfully controls the ebb and flow: accelerandi, subtle rubati and dynamic swells and falls are crafted so that they feel a natural element of the story-telling. The rich reedy opening of the overture establishes a calm sleepiness, the strings comfortingly gentle, the horns and woodwind to the fore, before a snappy pizzicato triggers a spark of vigour. Ticciati ranges fluently through the thematic material, each new melody or motif imbued with dramatic character. The textures are lucid, despite the sometimes dense instrumentation; indeed the balance within the orchestra, and between stage and pit is consistently good. Melodies soar freely and harmonies are opulent, but things never become sentimentally turgid. Ticciati misses no opportunity to remind us — a snarling horn, a biting pizzicato, an ominous tonal tint — of the bitter taste beneath the sugar coating.

The ‘Witch’s Ride’ is well-crafted: astute accents, driving repetitive rhythms, incisive string playing and the final eerily spiralling cello solo leave us in no doubt of the give us a foretaste of the ghastliness which the children may face in the wood. In the ‘Dream Pantomime’, in which fourteen shimmering angels arrange themselves in a shimmering tableau around the sleeping children, Ticciati crisply shapes the orchestral dialogues, as the mood and pace shift and sway. A fine horn fanfare is a warm springboard for the Act 3 Prelude, in which the motoring string textures are never pounding, always fleet.

The cast is uniformly superb, but it is the eponymous siblings who shine most brightly. From her first petulant outburst, wilfully interrupting Gretel’s nursery song, Alice Coote totally embodies the spirit of the impetuous and sassy, but lovable, Hansel. A gleeful cry of ‘Hurrah!’ as he flourishes a bursting basket of strawberries that will earn his mother’s praise, is refreshingly spontaneous; but the mischief-maker’s proud confidence fades with his reluctant, and touchingly forlorn, admission that ‘Gretel, I’ve forgotten the way’. This Hansel can certainly make a raucous din! ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo!’ he shrieks, when awoken prematurely by his sister’s lark-like, virtuosic trilling. Coote’s fiercely defiant rejoinder, ‘I’ll not go with you, you old hag’, as the Witch tries to entice the children into her sugar-drop abode, assures us of his vehement will.

Indeed, at times Coote dominates Lydia Teuscher’s more moderate Gretel. However, Teuscher’s clean, even soprano illuminates Gretel’s essential goodness, while also capturing her youthful freshness — for example, her wild abandon at the thought of the scrumptious pudding soon to be devoured when a jug of cream is discovered in the bare pantry. Teuscher wonderfully conveys the young girl’s tender innocence as she gathers ripe fruit in the forest; her folk-like duet with a smooth clarinet melody supported by light pizzicato strings affirms her naive joy in the beauty and abundance of the natural world. Waking from her dream, in Act 3, Gretel questions, ‘Where am I? Am I awake of dreaming?’; Teuscher introduces a marvellous note of wonder mixed with hesitation, as if young girl has not quite shaken off the otherworldliness of her nocturnal meanderings.

And, the siblings’ voices blend mellifluously, whether they are stealing the cream, dancing playfully, or stumbling across the cottage of their dreams — all candies, bonbons, buns and chocolate. Coote and Teuscher entwine artlessly and wondrously in the ‘Evening Prayer’, first in rich homophony and then in dialogue, Gretel’s pure melody aloft supported by Hansel’s chromatically sliding harmonies. Ticciati calls for a firm bass line but reins in the horns and clarinets until the children have finally drifted into their dreamland; the slightest hint of a rubato before the final extended cadence is stirring.

As the children’s mother, Irmgard Vilsmaier is emphatic without being pantomime-esque; her tone is full of character but gratifying; indeed her Act 1 aria is touching imbued with a convincing note of desperation in the face of unalterable poverty, hungry children and a reckless husband. The boisterous entry of the latter, sung by William Dazely, is prefaced by a crescendo-ing ‘Ral la la la’ refrain of ebullience, but Dazely does not offer a one-dimensional performance, modifying his tone to one of urgency upon the realisation that his children are missing. Sometimes the exuberance of the drunken broom-maker is achieved at the expense of accuracy; a tremulous concern when Dazely imagines his off-spring ‘wandering in the wood at night, with no stars nor moon’ wavers somewhat dangerously. And, while conveying a fitting anxiety and horror, he employs an overly wide vibrato at the top when describing the Nibblewitch who lures children to their deaths-by-gingerbread.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Witch is a monster; her gambit, ‘My name’s Rosina Sweet-tooth, the very friendliest of ladies’, is squirm-makingly unctuous, but grovelling enticements and faux tenderness flare inevitably unpredictably into raging threats and revelatory declarations of evil intent. Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s obsequious summons, ‘Come, little mousy, come into my housy’, may be alarmingly disingenuous but his evil laugh is absolutely spine-chilling! The Witch’s ‘Spell’, punctuated by deadly rasps from the brass, stabbing strings and a tolling timpani, is a masterpiece of vocal acting.

Tara Erraught’s Sandman floats a lovely legato line, finding a glossy allure as she promises the children that the stars will appear in ‘Heaven’s furthest sphere and angels bring you dreams of sweet delight!’ As the Dew Fairy, Ida Falk Winland exhibits a bright crispness but the voice is rather too large, and the vibrato ever-present, for a wispy sprite of the dawn. The children’s chorus achieve an appropriately sweet blend.

Claire Seymour

Recording details:

Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel . Alice Coote (mezzo soprano) — Hansel; Lydia Teuscher (soprano) — Gretel; Irmgard Vilsmaier (soprano) — Mother; William Dazeley (baritone) — Father; Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor) — Witch; Tara Erraught (mezzo soprano) — Sandman; Ida Falk Winland (soprano) — Dew Fairy; London Philharmonic Orchestra; conductor, Robin Ticciati. Glyndebourne Festival Opera. GFOCD 015-10, 2 CD set (58:37, 41:57), full German text with English and French translations, liner notes, colour production photographs.