Hänsel und Gretel

Hänsel und Gretel [Concert performance; sung in German]

Hänsel – Jennifer Larmore
Gretel – Rebecca Evans
Mother – Elizabeth Connell
Father – Alan Opie
Sandman – Mary Nelson
Dew Fairy – Gillian Keith
Witch – Jane Henschel

London Oratory School Chamber Choir

BBC Concert Orchestra
Jane Glover

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 20 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Whether by accident or design, it was an apt bit of scheduling to place Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera on the evening following a performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. To hear, as it were, the disciple’s music following that of the master’s was indeed enlightening.

Whilst Wagner’s soundworld is endemic to Humperdinck’s style, his own take on it enabled him to create a thoroughly appealing opera. It remains a puzzle why, having composed such a well-crafted score, both musically and dramatically adroit, he was apparently unable to recapture the freshness of invention so readily apparent in Hänsel und Gretel.

Generally perceived as an opera for children – or at least family-orientated – there is nothing remotely juvenile about the musical demands for the performers. The orchestration is often very dense and occasionally heavy, requiring commensurately strong singers. The conductor needs to be ever-watchful regarding balance but without allowing the orchestral detail to submerge, since the interweaving of melodic ideas is every bit as sophisticated as Wagner’s.

Fortunately, on this occasion, cast, orchestra and conductor were well up to the mark. I don’t know whether Jane Glover has conducted Hänsel und Gretel in the opera house, but there was a tangible sense of theatricality to her reading. Tempos seemed completely appropriate, with plenty of animation balanced by repose when needed. The famous ‘Evening Prayer’ was most beautifully realised, with hushed, rapt strings matched by expressive vocal duetting. The music was touching in its simplicity and did not sound at all hackneyed.

As the doughty pair, Jennifer Larmore and Rebecca Evans were well matched and both expressed character without any hint of exaggeration. Although children are portrayed, this is childhood seen from an adult’s perspective. The scene in the wood in the second act, where they become frightened at the perceived danger lurking around them, finds the music taking a more complicated turn, with the vocal lines becoming anguished and alarmed. Here, Larmore and Evans suggested anxiety and the sense of having been abandoned; their performances fully conveyed the terror that the music tells us the children are experiencing.

In the more playful scenes at the start, their sparring did not become embarrassing or ‘childish’ in an inappropriate way. Jennifer Larmore presented a down-to-earth character, whilst Rebecca Evans conveyed Gretel’s gradual growing-up. In many ways, Gretel is the most developed character, musically speaking, and Evans’s touching simplicity alone in the wood was offset by her heart-warming radiance in greeting the dawn at the start of Act Three, crowned by a superb top D.

The character of the Mother is a full-fledged Wagnerian role, which needs a voice to match: Elizabeth Connell has one. Her powerful, fully focussed voice and superb diction were deployed to terrific effect. Her admonishment of the children was angrily delivered, and her subsequent lamenting of her poor lot was poignant. She combined effectively with her spouse, and one’s only regret is that Mother doesn’t have more to sing, so convincing was Connell’s realisation. The part of the Father is also not that extended; Alan Opie, another seasoned Wagner singer, was also well cast. The jaunty, slightly world-weary Mahler-like song he sings on his first appearance was expressively phrased, and his description of the Witch who lives in the wood suggested the darker side of this story.

Jane Henschel’s Witch was a magnificent portrayal and all the more powerful for not allowing caricature to take the place of a conscientious musical rendition; there are plenty of cackles in the score without the need for any to be added. Henschel took what librettist and composer had written and realised it with total conviction. Sandman and Dew Fairy – sometimes cast with the same singer – were delightfully portrayed by Mary Nelson and Gillian Keith respectively.

The fresh voices of the London Oratory School Chamber Choir contributed much to the final scene – earlier the off-stage echoes in the wood were evocatively atmospheric. The BBC Concert Orchestra was on very good form, with Humperdinck’s varied orchestration coming vividly to life. From the musical point of view, this was a thoroughly convincing and satisfying performance.

I cannot, however, close without mentioning the manner in which this opera was presented. The stage was surrounded with various broomsticks and effigies of gingerbread men. Characters came and went in costume. But I’m wondering whether Elizabeth Connell needed to flourish a jar of the instant variety when Father announces he’s brought home some coffee, and whether it was appropriate for the Dew Fairy to enter blowing bubbles? A director was credited – David Edwards – and so these ideas must have been down to him. Whether or not Bernie Davis’s lighting was also Edwards’s notion, I cannot say, but with constantly changing shades and, at key moments in the drama, illuminated (and rotating!) gingerbread men projected to either side of the organ, one wondered just what was being proffered, and why. I presume the bright lights that came on and then flashed during the ‘Dream Pantomime’ were supposed to coincide with the musical climax: if so, they were mistimed.

All this was a silly and irrelevant distraction, as if Humperdinck’s miraculous score does not contain colour and illustration enough. Perhaps it was thought that the audience would not understand what was going on at any given moment. If so, this displays a condescending attitude which Humperdinck took great care to avoid in his opera.

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