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Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, May 2009

Johannes Felsenstein’s production of this favourite fairy-tale opera presents it with every sinister element removed. In Stefan Rieckhoff’s sets and costumes, the children remain in a home setting with their own bed central to the scene and the barest hint of a forest behind, while their father, taken by Ludmil Kuntschew, plays the witch as an amiable, totally benevolent figure, not sinister at all, even joining them in the final joyful ensemble. When they sing that the witch is dead, you find that the production contradicts that completely. Costumes are traditional, though the children, ill-dressed in Act 1, return in grander clothing, while their father as the Witch appears in scarlet.

Taking that unsinister stance means that the opera loses much of its bite. No doubt Felsenstein felt that it would make the piece more accessible for very young children, though many of them relish the sinister element, used as some will be to Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy-tales. That said, it is a strong and capable performance, very well conducted and with a cast of good if not outstanding singers. Ensemble is first-rate, not least from the children’s chorus who sing from the front of the stage.

The recording is exceptionally full and vivid, though the Overture and Interludes are marred by scenes from the Nazi period, as well as scenes of post-war destruction, which marry oddly with the opera itself. One wonders what Felsenstein meant to convey, just as it is not clear why the central characters should regularly be carrying dolls. A highly individual version of a much- loved opera.

James Zychowicz
Opera Today, April 2009

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.

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.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, February 2009

Even before the opera begins we are shown pictures of starving children as backdrop to the stills of the main characters. During the overture there is footage, supposedly, around WW1, of mass scenes and close-ups of more starving children. Later still comes archive material from WW2 and even the Vietnam War. The focus is clearly on children in exposed situations.

Hänsel und Gretel as a socio-critical opera—does it seem strange? No, maintains Susanne Schulz, principal dramatic adviser of the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau in an essay in the booklet for this issue. Fairytales may always have been permeated with escapism, reflecting dreams rather than reality, but Hänsel und Gretel, especially in Ludwig Bechstein’s version, which was Humperdinck’s source for his opera, firmly focuses on the social misery of millions of people during the 19th century. Hunger is the central theme in the first act and the triggering factor for the children’s decision to go out into the woods. The realism in the first act, where child labour is another ingredient, is striking and stands in sharp relief from the following scenes, which should be seen more as the children’s dream visions. They do indeed dream in act II but in this production it seems that the whole opera, apart from the first act is a dream.

When the children go to sleep in the wood they are nominally still in their home, the fragments of the broken pot still on the floor and they say their evening prayers in front of their own beds. During the dream pantomime a row of children—even a Lucia with candles in her hair!—walk in a procession and line up at the back of the stage, where a big decorated Christmas tree is erected. When Hänsel and Gretel went to sleep before the pantomime they were dressed in their simple every-day clothes; when they wake up the next morning they are beautifully dressed. They find the gingerbread house and are being watched from above by their parents, who had been there in the wood/the family’s kitchen even earlier to tuck them up in their beds. Now the father ‘disguises’ himself by putting a cloth over his head and comes down to the children. But it isn’t really he who is the Witch, it’s an ugly doll that he lends his voice to and Hänsel and Gretel also have dolls, symbolizing themselves. It is a kind of puppet theatre within the opera. Consequently at the end of this scene it is the Witch Doll that is thrown into the fireplace.

Making a dream opera of a fairytale opera may seem natural from one point of view—but aren’t the elements of dream present already? In the first act Gertrud, the mother, is as usual an evil person—but probably not just to be evil: the financial situation for the family is strained to say the least, not being improved by Peter’s, the father’s, heavy drinking. In the dream they are still frightened of Peter, but they seem to get confidence in him in time and Gertrud, who is in the background, looks at the children with warmth. At the end there is a really jolly family reunion and all the social problems seem solved. It is a fairytale and a dream, but isn’t this too uncomplicated? Maybe not—a dream can also be a vision but it is well childish if the problems are to be solved by throwing the Witch in the fireplace. Still—the historical, and not so historical, pictures aroused intrinsically strong feelings but then they vanish almost as soon as the topic is introduced.

Such reservations apart—and who says that opera’s most important mission is to give solutions to problems politicians have failed to solve—this is a thought-provoking, different and engaging performance. Johannes Felsenstein and his ensemble in Dessau are clearly making engaging productions and the ensemble is obviously deeply involved. This is music theatre that can only be achieved with a group of singers who get time to creep into their roles and interact. Especially the rapport between Sabine Noack’s Hänsel and Cornelia Marschall’s Gretel is truly congenial. One believes in them. Both are also excellent singers. Ludmil Kuntschew is more of a character-singer, but that is what a good ‘Witch’ should be and with his flexible face he makes the most of his opportunities. Alexandra Petersamer, whom I recently saw as a splendid Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde from Dessau, has a classy voice, though as Gertrud she has few opportunities to really show that. However, she acted convincingly, first and foremost in the first act. I hope to hear more of the glittering soprano Viktoria Kaminskaite, whose Sandman and Dewman, were more or less the same character, which they probably are in the real fairy-world. The children’s chorus were good and Markus L. Frank led a well-paced performance. I have always found the overture to this opera with its Wagnerian sound-world too long—it takes almost five minutes before it starts living—and having seen the opera in the theatre in company with 1200 children in ages between 6 and 12 I know that they feel the same. Once into the first act the performance caught fire and then we were suddenly at the end before one could say Jack Robinson.

The sets are attractive and the opera is filmed in a rather straight-forward way but with fine care for interesting details. My appetite for more productions from the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau has certainly been whetted.

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