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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, January 2011

No slackards involved here: This is one of those meticulously conceived and worked-out productions that, whether it succeeds or fails, always command my respect. It is not a pretty production, nor quite a traditional one, stripped down to its Grimm grimness, and in modern clothing, too. Hansel and Gretel aren’t Norman Rockwell poster children here. There’s no prettifying of Hansel’s shaggy hair and rude if protective personality, or Gretel’s pouting, gawky, timid manner. Gertrud looks very much a plain-faced, rundown, lower middle class mother pressed beyond her limits, while Peter is ratty, drunk, and first seen carrying a pair of recyclable plastic bags. The poverty of fairytale is made starkly real through the poverty of modern times. Praise to Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, the stage directors, for desiring to achieve this, and for so doing this without overstatement.

Another element that is exceptional in this production is the constant emphasis on motivation in both storytelling and performers’ acting. The children’s chaotic games are not just ordinary play, but a clear result of hunger and boredom. It is hunger that drives them to eat the gingerbread house—shown here not as the Witch’s home, but as a doll’s house she deliberately pushes on stage—rather than a desire for instant gratification. While they dream, too, it is angels wearing the heads of forest creatures that bring remembrances of hearth and home and, sitting before a fireplace, show themselves as the parents, offering Christmas gifts—gifts that, once opened, reveal sandwiches, which the children in their dreams eat very, very slowly. Traditionalists might dislike it, but this blessing of the hungry and innocent is both thoughtfully religious and effective on stage.

Mention of the animal angels brings up another facet I very much liked of this Hansel und Gretel: its amusing mixture of matter-of-fact modern and fairytale. The Dew Fairy’s table is drawn swiftly across the stage to her at the wave of a hand—and she uses the same hand to take from it a dust mop, and a translucent plastic spray container. The Witch’s ovens are huge electrical affairs, afflicted with numerous meters and dials. Yes, we are given a Forest Primeval—no gang-ridden waterfront block of flats—but the attempts to avoid falling into the trap of Victorian cutesiness work very well.

The sets and lighting are equally good, and the special effects, ingeniously achieved. (A really solid feature included with the disc supplies interviews with the appropriate technical designers, and segments devoted to how their effects were made to work.) The acting is superb from all performers. I would especially single out for praise Anja Silja. One of the great singing actors of the last 40 years, she portrays the Witch as one of those elderly women who grin over-widely at children, solicitously moving into their personal space, always feeling the need to pinch their cheeks voraciously. Her costuming definitely helps: an aqua blue sweater, with the front cut away initially to show breasts. (There is a predatory sexual edge to her treatment later of Hansel, though it remains only that.) With a large blonde-and-blood-red-streaked hairdo, wizened features, walker, tatty print skirt, and large pearl necklace, she looks like some zombified version of June Cleaver.

The others are as good. The ache in Elizabeth Connell’s bones as Gertrud is almost palpable, and Thomas Allen makes ever so much of the randy, drunken, but loving and insightful Peter. Diana Damrau is the fearful but sweet Gretel to perfection, and Angelika Kirchschlager never looks or acts in any way that would lead one to think she is other than a brash young boy. (Which admittedly could be taken as less than a compliment, but isn’t.) Vocally, the cast isn’t quite as strong, but still more than adequate. Pumeza Matshikiza’s voice is slightly acidic and unsettled, and Anita Watson has trouble with vocal spread whenever she puts pressure upon it. As the latter is young and well respected, illness or overwork is the likely cause. Silja, of course, has an advanced case of the same condition—not unexpected at the age of 70—but after she’s sung for roughly 10 minutes the worst has faded, and her voice begins responding more readily to the demands placed upon it. The two “children” have distinctive vocal weights, and Allen offers up a good, solid bass-baritone that is most welcome. Colin Davis is responsive, energetic, and insightful, as he almost always is in live conditions. He leads his ensemble in an unsentimental rendition of the score that matches his stage directors’ vision. The resuscitated children aren’t exactly Kodály choir candidates, but by the time they sing, the intonational difficulties are lost in the feel-good aspects of everything else that has been accomplished.

Sound is offered in LPCM stereo, and DTS surround. Subtitles are provided in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian, while the video format is 16:9 anamorphic.

As far as I’m concerned, this becomes the finest Hansel und Gretel available on DVD. It easily surpasses the 1981 Solti performance, where Fassbaender’s undisguised feminine looks simply make her impossible to believe as Hansel, and the Met English-language version of recent memory, whose extraordinarily bad taste included Gertrud vomiting when the Witch is first mentioned, and Gretel smearing chocolate on Hansel’s upper lip to give him a Hitler moustache after the Witch is shoved into the oven. Stick with this one. You won’t regret it.

Matthew Gurewitsch
Opera News, December 2009

Night has fallen. Lost in the forest, the famished boy and girl have said their bedtime prayer, then drifted off to sleep. A guardian angel appears, then another and another. Part squirrels, part astronauts, with snowy wings that light up in the dark, they arrange a homey tableau. A fireplace rolls in, cheerfully ablaze, a miniature Christmas tree on the mantlepiece. Two wing chairs materialize, and in them, mother and father. The parents’ faces are loving and gentle and each of them holds a gift box fit for any prince or princess. Dazed, the children untie the ribbons, extract sheet after sheet of tissue, and discover their treasure: half a sandwich for the boy, half a sandwich for the girl, egg-salad on white bread, cut in triangles. Slowly, solemnly, they eat.

The Act I finale of Hänsel und Gretel seldom fails to cast its spell, but the layered fantasy of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s new staging at Covent Garden last December lent it a transcendent dignity that took one’s breath away. In sharpest contrast, yet equally effective, was the Act II nightmare in the Witch’s kitchen, where frozen children hung suspended in a giant meat locker. Christian Fenouillat’s set designs, mid-twentieth-century in feeling, were rooted in downscale realism but bore blooms of untamed invention, as did Agostino Cavalca’s costumes. (Christophe Forey’s lighting served the visuals to perfection.)

Many in recent years have made a show of exploring this opera’s dark side, but sooner or later, most sell out to slapstick. That did not happen here. In Anja Silja, the great Wagnerian of yesteryear, the Witch was the ash-blond ogress next door: a matron has gone mad, brows drawn on in red crayon, blood clotting her hair, stone bosoms jutting out of her baby-blue cardigan. Her voice sliced like a rusty knife. The English titles made her even scarier, if that was possible, rendering ambiguous German turns of phrase in terms that were brutally explicit.

Faithfully documented here on Blu-ray (and also available on DVD), the Leiser-Caurier Hänsel und Gretel looks like an instant classic. True, the orchestra seems noncommittal in the prelude. But with the rise of the curtain, Colin Davis brings the players to life, infusing the action by turns with undiluted zest, menace, grace and mystery. Angelika Kirchschlager’s Hänsel and Diana Damrau’s Gretel chalk up top marks on every count; the poised serenity of their prayer is all the more moving for the subliminal anxiety with which they begin. Even their goofy dancing is a delight. Elizabeth Connell, a former Isolde, sings Gertrud in pealing tones; her figure is not that of a woman whose cupboard is bare. Thomas Allen, at best an occasional Wagnerian, is her match by force of voice and personality. There is no missing the animal magnetism between them, though there is evidence that he beats her, too. Pumeza Matshikiza is a Sandman straight out of Pan’s Labyrinth. In a dizzy twist, the Dew Fairy—clearly identified in the score as the Taumann, or Dew Man, and described by himself as small of stature—takes the form of a towering pink-haired carnival queen in mock Dior, rubber gloves and diamond bracelets, brandishing like magic wands a feather duster and a can of air spray. The role is still sung by a soprano, and Anita Watson pulls it off with humor and discretion.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, November 2009

Humperdinck’s masterpiece, Hänsel und Gretel was beautifully performed at the Royal Opera in 2009 (1011 D, two discs). It’s a fairy tale, a delicious children’s entertainment with wonderful melodies that have entered the folklore of every country where this opera has been produced and, in this performance, a wonderful musical flow. Colin Davis conducts brilliantly, with enormous “give and take” entirely suitable to the folkish melodies. The cast is first rate: Angelika Kirschschlager (Hänsel), Diana Damrau (Gretel), Father (Thomas Allen), Elizabeth Connell (Mother), Anja Silja (Witch). Silja, at 74, does not have much voice left, but her artistry and experience make her witch totally convincing. The staging, by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, for the most part traditional, emphasizes the children’s hunger throughout. (They complain in the opening scenes, eat the berries they have picked in the woods, devour the witch’s gingerbread house. Above all, in the dream pantomime, which often gets gloppy with its 14 angels, the children’s parents show up with sandwiches for them.) The video is high definition. The sound, LPCM Stereo and DTS Surround, is very “live,” but can be adjusted.

Robert Levine, September 2009

Set (by Christian Fenouillat) and costumed (by Agostino Cavalca) in the recent past (the 1970s or ’80s), Covent Garden’s new production of this opera contains the requisite wit, charm, and ghastliness to make it work wonderfully. The first act is set in the kids’ small, crooked bedroom; there’s barely any room for them to romp and their boredom is understandable. The dance is well done, with Gretel gazing at a photo of a ballerina to imitate and Hansel more rambunctious. The next scene’s forest setting is very effective, with projections and lighting adding to the children’s sense of dread.

The Yoda-like Sandman in a white suit is adorable, and the dream sequence, in which forest animals—big and gentle—turn the darkening woods into a comfy living room with a fireplace and armchairs, is lovely and touching, with a wistful moment at the end when the children each unwrap a big gift box and find a half sandwich inside, which they proceed to eat. The Dew Fairy looks vaguely like Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Once we enter the Witch’s kitchen, a tingle goes up the spine. In addition to a very long table, center stage, there are two huge ovens on the right, and at the back of the stage, a huge, glass-doored freezer filled with hanging children. During her ride, she takes one of the kids down, plops him onto her table, slathers him with cream and pops him into the oven. Creepy. At the finale, when the gingerbread kids come back to life and Peter and Gertrude enter, they pull the witch out of the oven and eat her. Hansel and Gretel do not take part--they cower. And can you blame them? It’s even creepier—and very effective. Kudos to directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier for creativity and knowing when sentimentality isn’t called for.

Musically the performance is just as interesting. Colin Davis manages to lead a production both luxuriant and perky without sacrificing either. He sweeps through the high-Romantic moments and dances through the others; the strange sounds in the forest that spook the kids are indeed spooky.

Starting at the bottom of the voice range we find Thomas Allen’s Father, who is so fine an artist—and just a bit drunk as he enters--that for once his “Tra la la la” doesn’t seem to go on too long. Elizabeth Connell’s Gertrude is grandly formed—she’s a big woman with a big voice—and she has great feeling. Angelika Kirchschlager’s Hansel is among the best I’ve heard and seen: wearing overalls and sporting a spiky haircut, we get the ideal of the bored boy, naughty, wanting to be more grown-up, and singing beautifully. Diana Damrau, a plain-Jane Gretel with awkward pigtails, gets along famously with her brother, dancing, playing, being huffy. They work well off one another and their voices blend beautifully. The Sandman and Dew Fairy are lovely.

What can one say about Anja Silja’s Witch? Grotesque—she’s first seen with her large, prosthetic breasts hanging out, but buttons herself up once she meets the children—and perhaps once elegant but now falling to pieces (think: Grey Gardens), going through her child-murdering routine as if it were another day at the job, her sinisterness all the more potent for lack of trying. The voice is in tatters but you won’t mind; this is what witches sound like, you’ll think.

This is now the preferred version on DVD: The old Met one with Blegen and Stade is excellent but very traditional; the new Met one with Alice Coote under Vladimir Jurowski sounds wonderful but is sour and wrong-headed directorially; the Solti-led film from 1981 stars the spectacular Gruberova and Fassbaender but is sonically dated. You’ll love this new set.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, July 2009

The Royal Opera House’s Christmas treat for 2008 was a new production of Humperdinck’s evergreen Hansel and Gretel, amazingly the company’s first performances since 1937! I was lucky enough to attend a performance—the night this was filmed, in fact—and I brought one of my dear friends who was attending her first opera. We both enjoyed it immensely and happily the all-star production was filmed. It was relayed by the BBC on Christmas Day and the DVD has now arrived. Not only was the production a great one to attend as a first opera, but the DVD is perhaps as good an introduction to opera as one could hope for, a success on almost every front.

First plaudits must go to Colin Davis and the orchestra who anchor the set in the finest manner possible. The orchestral playing in the Overture is warm and sumptuous, a gorgeous Wagnerian glow hanging over the opening horn theme. The orchestra’s contribution is above praise throughout, helped by truly superb sound if listening on DTS Surround. I was really startled by how clearly everything was captured on all 6 speakers, so full marks to Opus Arte for that. Davis knows and loves this score and he shapes each phrase with real affection, from the gentleness of the forest twilight to the harrumphing dance that accompanies the witch’s hysterics in the kitchen. His is the hand of a master and it is he who got the warmest ovation on the night.

The singers are excellent too. We are more used to seeing Kirchschlager and Damrau playing vamps like Melisande or the Queen of the Night, but they assume the roles of the children with remarkable success. Their voices are still recognisable and distinctive, but they seem to have pared them down so as to match the innocence of their characters, feeling light and carefree for the first act, but conveying genuine terror in the central section of Act 2. They are well characterised as individuals too, Kirchschlager cocky in acting and bullish in voice, Damrau much more vulnerable in her actions and sweeter of voice. I loved the little touches like the poster of the ballerina on Greta’s bedroom wall and their cheeky laughter as they smash the milk-jug. One feels real affection for them in the darkness of the forest and we share their elation as they triumph over the witch in the high-jinx of Act 3. A triumphant pair of performances.

The same can be said for mother and father: Elizabeth Connell is super as the harassed mother, shrill and hysterical as she tells the children off, but jolly when she hears of father’s success. Thomas Allen swaggers jovially when he enters, rather tipsily, in Act 1 and his jolly demeanour seems to love the joke of the children’s mischief. Then he turns instantly as he hears of their trip into the forest, conveying the witch’s sinister ride with a touch of terror. They go very well together and we believe that these are two characters who have been married for most of their lives. The minor roles are taken well: one perhaps wishes that the Sandman had taken a little more time to warm up but the Dew Fairy is bright and clear, like the morning she describes. The children’s chorus are quite enchanting for their pianissimo entry, but finish the opera with the gusto and energy they should.

In the theatre I was not at all convinced by Anja Silja’s Witch because, to be blunt, she has almost no voice left. She sounds shrill and strained and there is little power left in what was once one of the great voices of the twentieth century. On the screen, though, I found her much more convincing. The piercing harshness of her voice actually helps her to convey the sheer nastiness of the witch, and her histrionic portrayal of the character is quite hilarious in close-up. The directors have been careful to depict her with all the everyday touches that children react against, including twin-set and pearls, outdated dress sense and a Zimmer which she clearly doesn’t need. The appealing thing about Silja is the way she throws caution to the winds, shrieking with delight as she prepares her brew and managing a marvellous scream as she is pushed into the oven. She is also deliciously sinister in her first interaction with the children, particularly as she whispers the spells. Somewhat bizarrely, Silja made her first entrances in the theatre sporting a massive pair of plastic bosoms over her cardigan. These were edited out for the TV relay, but readers will be pleased to note that they are reinstated for the DVD.

The production is very watchable, mainly conventional with costumes placing it some time in the mid 20th century. The house in Act 1 is poky and a little psychedelic, while the forest’s minimalist setting allows it quickly to be transformed into the witch’s kitchen, which sports two industrial ovens and a larder full of dead children waiting to be cooked into gingerbread. It is slightly comical but darkly sinister too, just like the original fairytale. The dream pantomime sets a festive scene where mother and father give the children Christmas presents of big sandwiches in front of a roaring fire. The angels themselves are sylvan creatures with dormouse faces, quite appropriate for the middle of a forest and charmingly effective. Plenty of little touches enliven the action, such as the Dew Fairy’s Kim-and-Aggie look as she cleans up the forest in the morning.

All told then this is a very successful issue, with only one major reservation: the price. In their wisdom Opus Arte have decided to release the opera on two DVDs. This is entirely unnecessary: an opera of this length could easily have been fitted onto one disc, even with the extras included. These comprise some picture galleries and interviews with conductor, cast and directors, together with rehearsal footage. They are fine, but they certainly don’t justify the price hike, and their brevity means that they need not have forced the opera onto another disc. This was a serious misjudgement, especially in the light of the strong competition for this opera on DVD (see here for review of Richard Jones’ excellent Met production). I fear Opus Arte may have priced themselves out of the market (Editor's note—the price is not that of two full-price DVDs, fitting into the low end of the midprice range).

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2009

It is the stunning visual clarity and gorgeous colours that will first strike you in this video made last December in London’s Royal Opera House. It is a slightly updated production from that famous team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier who mix reality and fantasy with a deft hand. To achieve this the opening act in Hansel and Gretel’s home is rather cramped and takes place in the children’s bedroom rather than the traditional kitchen, and it is rather incongruous that it is in there that the parents get rather sexually amorous. But when it opens up for the woodland scene it is surrounded of pure magic. Of course the opera’s major problem is the need for mature singers to take the part of the two children, and in Angelika Kirchschlager and Diana Damrau, as Hansel and Gretel, the production is well-neigh ideal. Without stupid exaggeration they create that illusion right the way through, even to the end of the final curtain-call. Vocally they are perfect with voices that are nicely differentiated in quality yet blend well in duets. In the scene with the Witch the action does not become too scary for young children, and the eventual murder of the witch is made funny. Thomas Allan may not have sprung to mind in casting the father, but he proves perfect in every way, and looks rather too virile for Elizabeth Connell rather homespun mother. The great veteran soprano, Anja Silja, brings a Wagnerian quality to the Witch in her great theatrical outbursts, while the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Children’s Chorus bring the opera to a charming conclusion. In the pit Colin Davis’s conducting could not be better paced, and his orchestra respond in a well-balanced partnership with the singers. The sound in the first two acts is nicely atmospheric of the famous venue, but when the stage opens up for the third act it brings with it an extra degree of unwanted reverberation. There are translation sub-titles available if required, and the two discs include the usual added tracks that include an interview with Colin Davis. All in all one of the most desirable opera DVDs in a fast growing catalogue.

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