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

MOZART 250: the year 1767

Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos … this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

Bampton Classical Opera 2017

In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.

The nature of narropera?

How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel
07 Apr 2009

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

Originally directed by Brooks Riley for German television, this updated staging of Engelbert Humperdinck’s familiar opera Hänsel und Gretel is based on a production created by Johannes Felsenstein, the son of the well-known director of the Komische Oper Berlin, Walter Felsenstein.

Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

Peter - Ludmil Kuntschew; Gertrud - Alexandra Petersamer; Hansel - Sabine Noack; Gretel - Cornelia Marschall; Die Knusperhexe - Ludmil Kuntschew; Sandmännchen / Taumännchen - Viktorija Kaminskaite. Dessau Anhalt Theater Childrens Choir. Dessau Anhalt Philharmonic Orchestra. Markus L. Frank, conductor.

Arthaus Musik 101321 [DVD]

$24.98  Click to buy

Drawing on the tradition of his father for innovative productions, Johannes Felsenstein has created a memorable staging of Hänsel und Gretel, which uses historic footage from the 1930s containing images of hungry children in breadlines and other, similar impoverished situations, to set the tone. The footage fades into the opening scene, which takes its graphic cues from that period for the costumes and decor. Not set in some undefined, romanticized period of German peasant life, this modern setting of Hänsel und Gretel provides tangible visual cues to establish the sense of poverty which is essential to understanding some aspects of the plot. The comments of Suzanne Schultz, the principal dramatic adviser of the Anhaltisches Theater Dessay found in her essay about the opera in the booklet that accompanies the DVD are particularly relevant in this regard:

The memories of one’s own childhood conjured up by the music is, at the same time, an encounter with a cultural past. By returning to archetypes and reviving our cultural inheritance, the opera not only pinpoints the ambience and problems of its own time. It also throws up questions that go far beyond the twentieth century and remain highly charged issues even today. Hänsel und Gretel is a work that inspires us to approach with a sense of remembrance and reflection with a conscience and a view to the past, those who are weakest and whose burden is greatest in times of hardship - the world’s children.

To this end Felsenstein also uses film later in his production, such as when the father describes the witch, with images of tanks from the Second World War and short battle scenes create a different effect than intended when placed in the context of this opera. In this context, the images imply that Hitler is the witch, which also suggests that the witch is more powerful than depicted in Bechstein’s fairytale, thus contributing some eerie connotations to the line about the witch throwing children into ovens, a connection that Humperdinck could not have imagined in his conception of the opera. Similarly, the idea of hunting the witch becomes even starker when the caricature of Uncle Sam coincides with the father’s statement to his wife that it’s important for both of them to seek out the witch (“Wir wollen ja beide zum Hexenritt”). This staging contributes an element of surrealism to the story and makes this staging into something more than a fairytale, especially with the images of riots and firebombed cities during the prelude to the second act. Still unseen at this point, the witch for this production is much more powerful than found in other, more conventional settings of Hänsel und Gretel. At the same time, it also sets off the childish behavior of the children, unaware of the dangerous world all around them. While the staging involves anachronisms that detract from a sense of authenticity, as do some of the attempts at realism, like the depiction of the father’s drunkenness.

The conclusion, when the other children the witch enchanted are returned to life is effective stagecraft for the opera house. Presented on video, though, it loses something in the visual translation, since the camera must move into the audience and blur the scenic world confined to this point on the stage, and shift to focus in the theater. The blue-toned images of the children approaching the proscenium from the theater call attention to the spatial differences, which are further accentuated by the shot of the conducting leading the children’s chorus. Yet the ending of the scene works well, with the children depicted as working their own magic on Hänsel and Gretel, which leads well into the final chorus and the conclusion of the opera.

This production of Hänsel und Gretel is also of interest because it is based on the new critical edition of the score by Hans-Josef Irmen and published by Schott. As familiar as this score is to many audiences, it is useful to have a performance based on the recently vetted edition, which lends authority to this already fine reading of the score. That stated, it is difficult to account for the decision of having the singer who portrays the father to take on the role of the witch. While this makes sense in the context of the production, which has the parents looking on as the children awaken, and then tease the children by singing the witch’s famous line about who is nibbling at her gingerbread house. From that point the father dons the kerchief (presumably of the mother) to carry out the scene with the witch. In this sense, the fantasy is part of make-believe in the home, and not part of the fairytale world found in the story as rendered by Bechstein or the Grimm Brothers. As stagecraft, this works, but in terms of the musical score Ludmil Kuntschew has used a head voice in various passages. Traditionally the role is sung by a tenor or, in some houses, the soprano who plays the mother, so the choice of the baritone here departs from practice.

The two women who portray the children, Hänsel by Sabine Noack and Gretel by Cornelia Marschall, are quite effective in their portrayals of the two characters. In addition to their fine command of the music, they evoke the children physically in their interactions with each other. Even in the comparatively plainer setting of the children’s passage through the forest, the reactions of Marchall as Gretel give a sense of elements she alone can see, and thus play upon the attentive viewer. Noack has captured the mannerisms of the boy Hänsel nicely, and at times it is difficult to imagine that she is playing a boy. As their parents, Kuntschew is convincing as the father, and Alexandra Petersamer delivers the role of the mother well.

All in all, though, this thought-provoking staging of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel brings into the work associations which attempt to intensify the dramatic situations. The anachronisms from the Third Reich make this staging perhaps less accessible to younger audiences, who might be need some explanation of the newsreel footage that underscores some scenes. A regular part of the opera repertoire at many houses, since its premiere on 23 December 1893, Hänsel und Gretel retains its association with Yuletide celebrations, particularly in the final scenes, but this production contains allusions to other elements in German culture to set it apart from other, more conventional presentations. Yet enough traditional elements remain in the production to remind viewers of the associations of this work with Christmas, and some of the picturesque tableaux are visually effective, not only at the conclusion of the work, but also in the tender scene as the children fall asleep at the end of the second act, with the angels around them and the parents tucking the children into their beds. As strong as the visual dimension is in this production, the musical elements are well executed throughout, an aspect of opera that must be solidly in place to anchor any production.

James Zychowicz

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):