Glyndebourne Festival Opera – Hänsel und Gretel

Hänsel und Gretel – Fairy-tale in three acts to a libretto by Adelheid Wette after the fairy-tale by the Brothers Grimm [sung in German]

Gretel – Adriana Kučerová
Hänsel – Jennifer Holloway
Mother – Irmgard Vilsmaier
Father – Klaus Kuttler
Sandman – Amy Freston
Dew Fairy – Malin Christensson
The Witch – Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kazushi Ono

Laurent Pelly – Director
Barbara de Limburg Stirum – Set designs
Laurent Pelly – Costume design
Joël Adam – Lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 23 July, 2008
Venue: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes, Sussex

Glyndebourne’s new production of “Hänsel und Gretel” by Laurent Pelly makes for a very pleasing evening.

Jennifer Holloway as Hänsel  and Adriana Kučerová as Gretel in the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival production. ©Mike HobanFirstly there is an outstanding performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Kazushi Ono, warm, committed, and majestically played. From the opening bars there was a tingle about the playing and a wonderful sonority and clarity to the textures. Ono kept the pace going, even in the more slushy moments, and in passages such as the ‘Witch’s Ride’ there was also a virtuosity and exuberance.

Pelly’s setting is modern. The children are living in a huge squalid reinforced cardboard hut held together by tape – one of the marvellous sets by Barbara de Limburg Stirum – on the edges of a forest where the debris of today’s throwaway society has been jettisoned – plastic bags and bottles aplenty. The children are thin and shabbily dressed. Their parents (not quite so thin) are also very much on society’s edge and with a strong suggestion of child neglect in their emotional make-up.

An excellent cast of family-members includes Jennifer Holloway’s Hänsel, very boyish in demeanour and strongly sung without sounding too feminine. Adriana Kučerová’s Gretel was playful and girlish, her bright light soprano with its hearty top fitted the role perfectly and never sounded conventionally operatic. I loved Irmgard Vilsmaier’s mother – exactly the right penetrating Wagnerian voice the part needs and absolutely secure.

Jennifer Holloway as Hänsel  and Adriana Kučerová as Gretel in the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival production. ©Mike HobanThe playing of Act One was relatively conventional in directorial terms. The orchestral passage between the first two acts was subject to a witty projection of a silhouette of the Witch trying to get a succession of brooms to give flight. It was perhaps overdone – but still witty – and the final image of the witch flying towards the audience and enveloping the screen in dark shadow brought a real sense of menace back.

A forest dominates Act Two through subtle lighting and mist; very evocative and making this bleak landscape surprisingly beautiful. Amy Freston’s fresh-voiced Sandman was a nicely drawn cameo. I found the white-dressed fairies playing in the wood and desperately trying to awaken the sleeping children a rather poignant and arresting image. Malin Christensson’s sprightly dew Fairy was dressed in transparent plastic and distributed her dew from a fluid-filled plastic handbag – a fun touch.

Jennifer Holloway as Hänsel, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as The Witch and Adriana Kucerova as Gretel. Photograph: Tristram KentonAct Three was dominated – when the Witch’s lair was revealed – by another fantastic set. The Witch’s house was essentially an edifice of modern supermarket shelves, set on an ageing linoleum-tiled floor, but stacked with alluring-looking boxes of biscuits, sweets, lurid-coloured bottled drinks and just oozing with E-number overload. What are we feeding our children? I liked the Witch’s appearance at the supermarket-checkout conveyor-belt stuffing boxes of goodies into environmentally unfriendly plastic bags. When the house opened it revealed shelves stacked with racks of knives – very nasty and very topical.

The Witch was portrayed as grotesque – much in accordance with the original Grimm Brothers’ story – and here sung by a tenor, Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke. He was certainly game and spirited in his portrayal although his voice did not always have the freedom and flexibility throughout the entire range; and some of the lines when sung in the tenor register do not penetrate the orchestral tumult as well as the mezzo-soprano option. I had expected Pelly to have the Witch dispatched with a little more theatricality. This might have then made the appearance of all the imprisoned children – all woefully obese – more startling than it was. Drawn from local schools they sang very well indeed. It was a reassuring touch to have the forest burst into lush greenness in the background as the spells were broken and the toxic supermarket contents sealed off as a health hazard.

It is positive to report a scattering of children in the audience, and one assumes that by bringing this opera into its repertory that Glyndebourne is trying to encourage a new audience. It seems slightly odd therefore to perform the piece in the original German – but that is a minor gripe, for the production and the marvellous orchestral playing is very diverting.

  • Performances on 29 July and 1, 3, 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26 & 29 August
  • Glyndebourne

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