Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

Carmen in Orange

Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):