Hänsel und Gretel – Fairy-tale in three acts to a libretto by Adelheid Wette, after the fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm [semi-staged; sung in German]
Gretel – Lydia Teuscher
Hänsel – Alice Coote
Mother – Irmgard Vilsmaier
Father – William Dazeley
Sandman – Tara Erraught
Dew Fairy – Ida Falk Winland
The Witch – Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Stéphane Marlot – Director of Proms semi-staging (after the Glyndebourne production directed by Laurent Pelly)
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 31 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The Glyndebourne showcase at the BBC Proms is always an anticipated event and a well-attended concert, though there were perhaps fewer children in the audience than one might have anticipated. However, it was the orchestral performance that was so enjoyable on this particular evening. Humperdinck’s score is full of sonic felicities, memorable tunes and vocal highlights. From the dreamily expansive and reassuring opening, as befits a fairy tale, Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic gave an assured and magical account of the score. The complex interweaving of themes, especially as evinced by the lower strings, had both clarity and warmth and the percussion section certainly relished its moments of glory in the ‘Witch’s Ride’ and in the accompaniment to the witch’s scene in the third act. Ticciati was ever alert to the impending orchestral warnings of dangers to come – one example being the timpani strokes first heralding the terrors of Ilsenstein as the children’s father tells their mother about the old woman of the forest. Other moments such as the initially reassuring and subsequently frightening forest echoes also worked their magic in the cavernous reaches of the Royal Albert Hall. There was urgency as needed as when the mother shoos her children out of the house into danger, and relaxation when they started to play in the woods – marvellous solo cello and upper woodwind at that moment. Ticciati was also generally very friendly to his singers, keeping the volume at a level where the voices could be heard, even when the performers were being very active on the semi-stage.
Those who saw the Glyndebourne production, either in the theatre or at one of the big-screen transmissions will have known that the singers of the title-roles in this production of “Hänsel und Gretel” do spend much of their time in activity – almost wearingly so – although there is a lot of playful and dance-like music in the score. Lydia Teuscher was a gangly, ever-mobile Gretel and Alice Coote’s Hänsel was an expert study of adolescent male movement; sometimes childlike, sometimes amusingly macho. You could easily see this young man turning into Perry from Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke’s Kevin and Perry sketches. Both were engaging and successful portrayals of youth. Teuscher has a bright bell-like voice that carried well into the hall and her diction was first rate. Coote’s warmer tones were a marvellous foil, and the two voices dovetailed and blended perfectly in the prayer that closes Act Two. This they started at a fantastic pianissimo holding the audience rapt and silent. At this passage you could really hear antecedents of some Straussian duets (indeed, Richard Strauss conducted the work’s world premiere in Weimar in December 1893). Both singers also relished the rhymes, alliteration and onomatopoeic language that characterises Adelheid Wette’s libretto, which often gets lost in translations. Yes there are communication advantages in having the text in the language of the audience, but this performance reminded one there are losses too.
Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke enacted a terrifyingly grotesque Witch, first appearing in pink wig, matching cerise outfit and teetering on high-heels. Once the children were captured the crone jettisoned pretence to appear as a slovenly, bare-chested, bald, slightly hairy knife-wielding harridan. He certainly captured the duplicity of the witch, and sang the part with some aplomb, even if his cackling laughs were sometimes overdone. He both dominated and repelled in his big scene, and crowned his capture of the Albert Hall though placing of the pink wig on Henry Wood’s bust. It was quite a tour de force.
William Dazeley was a strongly sung Father, making much of his shopping-bag laden entrance through the throng of audience in the Arena. He too got the words across with point. Irmgard Vilsmaier’s mother revealed a voice of Wagnerian proportions and penetration with angry and mellow warmth of tone when in despair. Her diction was rather better in the more reflective passages of her role. Tara Erraught and Ida Falk Winland’s Sandman and Dew-fairy (inspired costume) were both characterful, though perhaps rather too similar in vocal timbre. The chorus of children was excellent in their contributions to the final ensemble.
Stéphane Marlot’s adaptation of Laurent Pelly’s production for the Proms space was only intermittently successful. There were moments of wit, such as the witch’s house being a replica of the Albert Hall constructed out of modern confectionary and sweet-drink bottles. The demise of the Witch was not that well handled and did not match the orchestral and vocal build-up. Additionally, the relevance of the children setting the scenes during the prelude and interludes, particularly their littering the floor of the Act Two forest did not really seem that relevant without the full visual references of the complete Glyndebourne set. In a concert hall, even in a semi-staging one does not always need to be led ‘by the nose’ as to what to think and feel through the music. Surely some of the point is to listen to the music without other distractive elements. That is why the modern trend for atmospheric colouring of music by means of changing projections can sometimes be so infuriating – though on this occasion the use of the star and night sky projections on the video screens the surround the orchestra stage were for once very successful and evocative. These were minor quibbles on this occasion though, for the orchestral and vocal performances were so strong.