Hansel and Gretel – Märchenspiel in three acts to a libretto by Adelheid Wette, after the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm; sung in an English translation by David Pountney
Hansel – Jennifer Larmore
Gretel – Rebecca Evans
Mother – Rosalind Plowright
Father – Robert Hayward
Sandman – Diana Montague
The Witch – Jane Henschel
The Dew Fairy – Sarah Tynan
New London Children’s Choir
Sir Charles Mackerras
Recorded 22-27 November 2006 in Blackheath Halls, London
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: September 2007
CD No: CHANDOS
CHAN 3143(2) (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 41 minutes
The Chandos library of “Opera in English” is expanding at a healthy rate, and one of the most welcome features to this catalogue are the recordings conducted by that most versatile of musicians, Sir Charles Mackerras. So it is here. Mackerras provides an exciting, immaculately paced and thankfully non-indulgent and not over-Romanticised version of this magical score for “Hansel and Gretel” by Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921).
Chandos is to be congratulated in capturing the singers and especially the Philharmonia Orchestra in a marvellously open and spacious acoustic that allows all the felicities of Humperdinck’s orchestration to register so clearly while achieving an almost perfect balance between voices and instruments. That this is achieved despite the Wagnerian denseness of the composer’s scoring is a real achievement. Time and again one hears small details of orchestration that have gone unnoticed in other recordings and which would probably not register in a theatre from an orchestra pit – and that surely is what studio recordings are partly about! Particularly noticeable are all the intricate figures of the lower strings – and the brass is on thrillingly agile form. All the off-stage effects are vividly realised too.
Those magical agents of sleep and awakening, the Sandman and Dew-fairy are sung respectively by Diana Montague and Sarah Tynan. The former is her wonderfully assured self, and with her luscious lower register is a very soothing voice to induce sleep, and Mackerras really does set her a challengingly broad tempo! The transition from this passage to Hansel and Gretel’s Prayer and through to the end of the Act Two is magically handled by conductor and players. Sarah Tynan’s sprightly and brightly-toned Dew-fairy is another asset.
This leaves Jane Henschel’s Witch, here called Rosina Lickspittle, and on this showing, boy would it be fun to see her play it in the opera house! Again this is another role that benefits from being played pretty straight – there are some truly horribly over-the-top renditions in other recordings (particularly Elisabeth Söderström’s uncharacteristically misjudged reading under John Pritchard). Henschel judges it perfectly with her comically rolled-Rs and emphatic consonants and her rather overwhelming refulgence of tone, particularly at “scrumptious child – and you – my bumptious child”. The duplicity of the character is hilarious – “I want you to like me – a little”. Her recitation of all the sugary delicacies available in her house sounds most appetising and her “ride” is a truly exuberant percussion-rich roller-coaster of a trip.
Unusually for “Opera in English” this recording has one direct competitor, being the Classics for Pleasure version originating from the Sadler’s Wells company (now ENO) in the late 1960s. With the rather old-fashioned translation and rather BBC-accented singing it now sounds impossibly dated, although some of the singing is very fine – in some parts certainly the equal of the newer one (Rita Hunter’s Mother for example). However, neither Mario Bernardi’s conducting nor the recorded sound can hold a candle to the newcomer.
The Chandos version is as well packaged as one would expect, with good notes, nice pictures of the artists and the inclusion of the English translation. I hope a lot of children, even those hiding in adult bodies, are given it or buy it!