Hänsel und Gretel

Engelbert Humperdinck
Royal Opera
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
(2008)

Production photo

Christmas came early to Covent Garden this week when the Royal Opera opened their first new production for more than seventy years of Engelbert Humperdinck's tuneful fairytale Hänsel und Gretel.

Indeed, so rare is a performance of this work at the Garden that this new account, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, opened twice within three days - two casts, two sets of distinguished soloists led by two conductors who between them span two generations. Former ROH musical director, Sir Colin Davis, was at the podium for the first performance on 9th December, and the rising British maestro Robin Ticciati, already the youngest to conduct at La Scala and the Salzburg Festival, conducted Thursday night's second premier.

It might be argued that two companies, in the case of a show Covent Garden hasn't undertaken since World War Two, are no more than prudent. Not everyone seems to have warmed to the opening night account, though all agreed Angelika Kirchschlager (Hänsel) and Diana Damrau (Gretel) were both in good voice. As for premier two we had the British mezzo Alice Coote and her co-star the Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling.

Coote is nicely robust as Hänsel though surely any partner would be hard-pressed to match the delicacy of Tilling, who after all, made her Royal Opera debut as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. But then, Coote made her debut as Hänsel at the New York Metropolitan. Let no-one suggest these two casts present a simple choice to the intending visitor in search of a Christmas treat.

Even the role of Peter, so splendidly sung on Tuesday by Sir Thomas Allen, is also in the capable hands, two nights later, of German baritone Eike Wilm Schulte who has already sung the role in Munich.

Perhaps I am becoming easy to please; it may be something to do with the passage of time. But I am invariably a soft touch when it comes to pantomime and children's shows: why, even Sabu's 60 year old films still give me a thrill!

Small wonder then, that I am, for the most part, enchanted by this new production of Hänsel und Gretel which, after all, at this time of year could just as well be Babes in the Wood. The overture, crisply handled by Mr Ticciati, revives all the familiar nostalgia. And suddenly there are the two children playing and squabbling in their tiny room - perhaps a bit too tiny even for a woodsman's hard-pressed family - for the generally evocative settings by Christian Fenouillat reek of an austerity that is as much political as artisan.

Yet when mother, a warm performance by the German soprano Irmgard Vilsmaier, shoos the children into the woods for berries, we are at last in the land of forest. Back projected scenery is not my forte - but since The Woman in White and modern Rebecca et al I am reconciled that it is here to stay and we had all better get used to it. And to be honest, most of us watching events in these woods are far too preoccupied with shadows and imaginary goblins to worry about how they do it!

In any case, tendency to carp here is always immediately removed by Humperdinck's evergreen score - that and the ease with which Coote and Tilling enjoy their voices and cut their mischievous capers.

And there is always the witch - in this case the experienced Irish mezzo, Ann Murray. It is no fault of hers that she must cavort, or attempt to, with the encumbrance of a zimmer-frame! I still prefer my witches with tall hats and broomsticks and since everything else apart from the bedroom and the woodsman's supermarket food bag seems period flavoured, why not go all the way in traditionalism?

There is a nice Dew Fairy from soprano Simona Mihai and a charming Sandman from Eri Nakamura.

Of course, it may be that, having ignored this work for so long, we, though certainly not it, have lost our sense of its essential charm. Where, lamented one connoisseur, has the magic gone? In fact it is right here in the score and in the faded pages of what was once the Brothers Grimm.

It is we, and our times, who are vanishing, not the melodies - or the fairytales.

Performances by this cast can be seen at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden on 11th, 28th December at 7.30 pm, 30th December and 1st January at 6pm.

The A cast under Sir Colin Davis, perform on 16th, 18th, 21st with performances also on 14th December at 6.30 pm and on 29th December at 1.pm.

"Hänsel und Gretel" will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 16 December at 7.30 pm and on BBC2 TV on Christmas Day, Thursday 25 December at 3 pm.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole