The Royal Opera House’s 2008 production of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel makes no concessions to the idea that this is a sort of operatic Nutcracker to be staged for the kiddies at Christmas. Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s production is firmly in the grim, and Grimm, tradition of central European folk tales and it’s sung in German.
For Act 1, designer Christian Fernouillet has created a claustrophobic bedroom with surfaces at odd angles in which the children (Angelika Kirschlager and Diana Damrau) play out their hunger displacement games until their angry mother (Elizabeth Connell) sends them off to forest to gather berries. The father (Thomas Allen) returns with food and this relief from hunger is played out in a scene heavy with sexual innuendo between mother and father. It’s quite creepy. Finally they realise that the children are missing and set off in search.
Act 2 starts in a classic fairy tale forest which rapidly darkens into a place of real menace. The sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza) is a strange distorted creature who puts the children to sleep. In the dream sequence the fourteen guardian angels, with animal heads, carry in a bunch of furniture, including a fireplace, to create a fireside scene of bourgeois domesticity. Two of the animal angels reveal themselves as the mother and father and give the children gifts. Inside each elaborate package is a single sandwich which is devoured with rapt concentration.
Act 3 opens with the Dew Fairy, here a pink confection played by Anita Watson, waking the children. The witch (Anja Silja), a vicious looking old woman with comedy breasts and a Zimmer frame, leaves a miniature gingerbread house for the children to explore. This transforms to the full size version with dead children hanging in a glass fronted cupboard and industrial scale ovens for the witch’s child based confectionery experiments. There is no concession whatever to comedy. The witch is scary as all hell and the scene in which she is shoved in the oven involves some serious pyrotechnics. The conventional happy ending descends into an orgy of face stuffing as the revived children fall on the cake/corpse of the witch. The production is consistent in its essential seriousness and is supported by fine acting across the board. In line with the concept nobody camps up their part. It’s all in earnest.
Musically it’s a really strong performance. Both Kirschlager and Damrau are quite excellent and work really well together. Kirschlager has quite a rich tone which blends nicely with Damrau’s cleaner sound. Thomas Allen is also really good. He’s quite chilling in the Hexenritt for example. Anja Silja’s Witch is a tour de force. She is every inch the witch/hag of nightmares without descending into cheap vocal trickery. Matshikiza sings very sweetly. Connell and Watson are quite good too but didn’t really register strongly with me. Colin Davis gets a suitably Wagnerian sound out of the orchestra and seems to balance drama and beauty very nicely. He’s well supported by the ROH orchestra, especially the brass and woodwinds, and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Children’s Chorus. The sheer beauty of the piece really comes out in the finale with Erlöst, befreit, für alle Zeit which manages to be gorgeous while avoiding dipping into excessive sentimentality.
The video direction of Sue Judd is good. She isn’t fixated with close ups though, since this isn’t a terribly busy production, she brings the camera in when there’s not much else to watch. There aren’t any gimmicks and it’s a good approximation to how one would watch from a decent seat which is what video directors ought to give us. The sound and picture quality are very good. It was shot in 1080i and the DVD picture is generally crisp and clear. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is absolutely first class; vivid and with spatial depth and everything clearly located. This is also available on Blu-ray. Audio choices there are LPCM 2.0 and 5.1. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. There’s a useful “Making of” documentary, an interview with Colin Davis plus cast and synopsis material on the disks. The package includes an unusually lavish tri-lingual leaflet.
I hesitate to compare this with the roughly contemporary Metropolitan Opera version. They are very different but both worthwhile in their own way.