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Angelika Kirchschlager as Hänsel [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera]
22 Dec 2008

Hänsel and Gretel at Covent Garden

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is titled a Märchenspiel — a Fairytale: and as twentieth-century psychologists and psychoanalysts have been eager to inform us, lurking beneath those familiar saccharine stories of sleeping princesses, defeated tyrants, love fulfilled and harmony restored, lie the dark shadows of the human heart — passionate, violent, unpredictable and unredeemed.

Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel and Gretel

Hänsel (Angelika Kirchschlager/Alice Coote); Gretel (Diana Damrau/Camilla Tilling); Gertrud (Elizabeth Connell/Irmgard Vilsmaier); Peter (Thomas Allen/Eike Wilm Schulte); Witch (Anja Silja/Ann Murray); Sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza/Eri Nakamura); Echo (Eri Nakamura/Simona Mihai/Anita Watson/Pumeza Matshikiza); Dew Fairy (Anita Watson/Simona Mihai). The Royal Opera. Conductor: Colin Davis/Robin Ticciat. Director: Moshe Leiser/Patrice Caurier. Set Designs: Christian Fenouillat.

Above: Angelika Kirchschlager as Hänsel [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera]


So, directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier are faced with a choice: is this ‘children’s opera’ a tale of sugary sentimentality or a gothic nightmare? To my mind, they aren’t quite sure … The opening act presents a realistic portrait of ‘modern-day family life’, complete with financial woes, parental neglect, bolshy children and over-sexed adults; the second act glides into a kitschy fantasy landscape in which magic and mystery induce a sense of temporary calm, and banish the demons and debt collectors; while, in the final act, menace and maliciousness are unmercilessly unleashed, shocking us almost as much as the thunderous explosion which brings to an end the witch’s depraved malevolence.

Diana Damrau as Gretel [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera]Diana Damrau as Gretel [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera]

Christian Fenouillat’s set — a box cradled within a box, all sharp angles and distorted perspectives — recalls his designs for Leiser’s and Caurier’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Hansel’s and Gretel’s bedroom is similarly sparse, even bland, in decoration; and, unfortunately, there is little room within this confined space for the physical movement and dancing which the libretto seems to demand, in this act and subsequently. However, as in the earlier collaboration, the enclosed space is effortlessly transformed by clever use of sliding walls and subtle projections, effecting a graceful transition from the real to the fantastic, from the Spar shopping bag to the miniature gingerbread house. And, the final scenic transformation into the witch’s kitchen is both slick and unnerving. Indeed, the fact that the tiny room is translated into different environments may suggest that all the landscapes through which the children wander are transformed versions of their own home — a more subtle psychological reading than some of those proposed elsewhere in this production. Moreover, although the angel-hamsters, complete with fairy-light encrusted wings, who bless the sleeping children in the central act may have been a little too twee for some, Fenouillat's designs for the woodland are beautifully conceived, a magical scrolling panorama leading the children, and us, through the enchanted trees.

One could be forgiven for forgetting that Alice Coote (Hansel) and Camilla Tilling (Gretel) are full-grown adults and not in fact young siblings - boisterous, bickering, bearing the bravado of childhood — so faultless were their vocal and dramatic performances. The characterisation was strong and immediate, the mannerisms of childhood perfectly conveyed. We are familiar with Coote’s unruly, over-excitable Hansel from her recent Met performances, but she was matched by Tilling who captured Gretel’s mixture of innocence and mischief. Tilling was more understated at the opening, but warmed into the role, responding richly to Coote’s sweet low registers; the timbral blending in the later duets was exquisite as the vocalists expertly conveyed the sense of fun, the petulance, the fear, the ingenuity of children. Both relished the words, enunciating clearly.

Ann Murray’s Witch was a fearful figure — both literally, with her pendulous, exposed breasts, and symbolically, as, casting her redundant Zimmer frame ruthlessly aside, she charged about a kitchen clearly designed for mechanised killing. Here the sets created a real sense of ‘theatre’, the industrial-sized gas ovens, meat hooks and hanging corpses chillingly echoing the mass murders of the concentration camps. As she tumbled headfirst into Aga’s blue flames, the ensuing explosion was a genuinely disquieting coup de théâtre. Murray’s delivery of the role was superb: the intonation was secure and the tone full, never remotely shrill.

If there could be no doubting Murray’s evil intent, Eri Nakamura’s Sandman was a more curious conception: half-human, half-puppet, this unsettling miniature ‘gremlin’ sported a disturbing rubber mask and stuttered along with grotesque, stilted shuffles. Nakamura, while sweet-toned, occasionally struggled to achieve ensemble with the orchestra; however, in her defence, the peculiar characterisation meant that she had to project from the very back of the stage, an absurdity when the children into whose eyes she was supposedly dripping sand, were lying at the front.

Indeed, dramatically the second act failed entirely to convince, lacking the genuine magic it demands. The long sleep sequence, when the children dream of a loving home, was unimaginatively staged: two cosy armchairs snuggled close to a glowing fireside, as Hansel and Gretel delightedly unwrapped the delicate layers of their Christmas presents — to discover a homely sandwich … a symbol of their essential need for love and family perhaps, but less than enchanting. The Dew Fairy, sung by Simona Mihai, was cast as a pink-enswathed Barbie Doll, complete with rubber gloves and spray polish — although in this rather sanitised environment, there was clearly no chance of her ‘marigolds’ getting dirty!

However, pushing aside these small quibbles, it was a glorious musical evening. There were certainly no weak links among the vocalists. The children’s parents, Eike Wilm Schulte as Father, and Irmgard Vilsmaier as Mother, were vocally precise and projected well — indeed, Vilsmaier’s round, ringing tone reminded one of Humperdinck’s debt to Wagner, and there was a danger that at times she would smother, both musically and physically, the less statuesque Schulte! The gingerbread children, performed by the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Tiffin Children’s Chorus, seemed not the least perturbed by their spell in the Witch’s freezer: their singing was pure, true, and secure in intonation and ensemble.

Shaping and supporting all, was the Royal Opera House orchestra under the baton of 25-year-old Robin Ticciati. Ticciati swept through the score with a sure sense of dramatic pace and musical colour, sensitive to the voices and yet aware of the importance of the orchestra in this Wagner-influenced score. From the warm, horn lullabies that open the work, he coaxed a myriad of colours from the orchestra, seeking and finding just the right timbre and mood to match the dramatic transitions between scenes and imaginative worlds. The overtures and entr’actes were, thankfully, not staged, allowing the audience to relax and revel in the landscapes Ticciati created.

Overall this was a delightful evening: Ticciati balanced momentum and lyricism; all soloists performed with conviction, style and vocal sureness; the designs charmed; and, in the end, good defeated evil.

Claire Seymour

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