Sunday, 6 December 2015

Hänsel und Gretel, Vienna State Opera, 29 November 2015

Vienna State Opera

Peter – Adrian Eröd
Gertrud – Janina Baechle
Hänsel – Daniela Sindram
Gretel – Ileana Tonca
Witch – Michaela Schuster
Sandman, Dew Fairy – Annika Gerhards

Adrian Noble (director)
Anthony Ward (designs)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Andrzej Goulding (video)
Denni Sayers (choreography)

Children of the Vienna State Opera School (chorus master: Johannes Mertl)
Students of the Vienna State Opera Ballet Academy
Stage Orchestra and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

The great attraction, apart from the imperishable lovability of the work, to this new production of Hänsel und Gretel was clearly the presence of Christian Thielemann as conductor. That proved to be its strongest suit in practice, allied to the Vienna State Opera orchestra on excellent form. One sensed, even if one were not aware already, that the musicians loved playing for him, and they sounded, which is not always to be taken for granted, as they might on summer holiday in Salzburg. The fabled Vienna strings, of late more fallible than many might expect, here sounded both golden and rich by turn, and sometimes simultaneously; their sound combined ‘orchestral’ and ‘chamber’ quality. The brass were warm, weich (tender, although that does not perhaps quite convey the sound of a Viennese horn in Wagnerian repertory), well blended. There was, moreover, plenty of life from the woodwind section, which took its solo opportunities with all the excellence one might have hoped for.

For all that undeniable instrumental excellence, however, it was Thielemann’s ability, as I recall noting in his Dresden Rosenkavalier at about this time last year, to play the orchestra almost as if it were a piano which marked this out as a great performance. Thielemann had the orchestra respond to the ebb and flow both of Humperdinck’s score and his conception thereof, not only as if there were little or no distinction between the two, but also as if this really were chamber music writ large, at least some of the time. There might well be fluctuations in tempo, dynamic contrast, balance, beyond what the literally-minded would expect, but they sounded ‘natural’ – what a multitude of sins is contained in that apparently simple word! – and, above all, dramatically motivated. Wagnerisms pervaded the performance; how could they not? As, however, in the greatest performances of this work, they had one smile rather than grimace, let alone frown. It is increasingly difficult for some of us to put out of our minds – nor, perhaps should we – the conductor’s increasingly bizarre or downright offensive political pronouncements; nevertheless, he remains a great conductor. Perhaps his flaws make him ideal for Strauss, in whose music he has always excelled; his Wagner has often been overrated, which is not to say that he does not have great talent in that respect too. This, at any rate, was in every respect a beautifully Straussian performance of Hänsel und Gretel.

Thielemann was of course fortunate to have a good cast. Daniela Sindram clearly relished the trouser role of Hänsel, communicating his awkward boyishness without awkwardness. Ileana Tonca was a properly feminine foil as Gretel; the two worked well together. Adrian Eröd showed his intelligent way with words as their father, with Janine Baechle as a warmly maternal partner to him. I am not entirely convinced that the admirable Michaela Schuster is best suited to the role of the Witch, but she made a good deal of its pantomime possibilities. There was some lovely and some less lovely singing – at times, too much vinegar – from Annika Gerhards.

The grave disappointment, however, is Adrian Noble’s School of Cameron Mackintosh staging. That this is an opera born of a Grimm Brothers tale, which tells of child abuse, there is nothing to be seen. There is a world of difference, moreover, between a ‘traditional’ staging which takes the work, perhaps unfortunately, at face value, and one which disingenuously pretends there is no grit to the oyster. Here, with no video expense spared, we seem in the world of a Hollywood ‘product’ rather than German Romantic opera. There is no sense of the children’s plight, even at the most basic level; instead, the lowest common denominator is encouraged to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’. In a programme interview, Noble was asked whether Freud had found his way into the production. ‘Nein, nicht direkt,’ came the response. He need not have bothered with the second and third words of his response.

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