Wednesday 10 December 2008

Hänsel und Gretel, Royal Opera, 9 December 2008

Royal Opera House

Hänsel – Angelika Kirchschlager
Gretel – Diana Damrau
Gertrud – Elizabeth Connell
Peter – Sir Thomas Allen
Witch – Anja Silja
Sandman – Pumeza Matshikiza
Dew Fairy – Anita Watson

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier (directors)
Christian Fenouillat (set designer)
Agostino Cavalca (designs)
Christophe Forey (lighting)

Tiffin Boys' Choir and Tiffin Children's Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

This is the Royal Opera’s first production of Hänsel und Gretel since 1937: most surprising, given the halo that tends to accompany Humperdinck’s Märchenoper. I had a few niggling, even curmudgeonly doubts during the first act, especially when it came to the passages that sound not so much influenced by Wagner as plagiarised from his works, especially Die Meistersinger. However, as time went on I was much more convinced – and that, I think, should be credited to so excellent a performance.

I can imagine some taking against Sir Colin Davis’s reading of the score but for me this was a very great advantage. He luxuriates in its Wagnerisms; for, although Wagner is not the first composer one thinks of in terms of this conductor, he has had considerable experience, both at the Royal Opera and at Bayreuth. The conclusion to the second act gave a sense of being subsumed, Parsifal-like into heavenly revelation, albeit without any of those troubling doubts one always entertains concerning who or what is being redeemed. With this Hänsel, we had a case of magical dreams, pure and simple. The following morning, as Gretel awoke, there was a nice sense – not overdone, but certainly there – of a miniature Brünnhilde’s awakening. It is all there in the score, of course, lest this sound like superimposition. Many conductors might have taken the music a little more quickly but Davis did not need to do so. Details were made to count, yet always in the context of a sure, loving narrative flow and an unimpeachable command of structure. And, as ever, the members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played their hearts out for Davis. Especially lovable were the rapt strings and the almost unbearably beautiful horns: this could have been another orchestra with which Davis has a longstanding relationship, the venerable Staatskapelle Dresden.

There was not a weak link in the cast. Angelika Kirchschlager is a truly wonderful boy Hänsel, as utterly credible as when she plays Octavian. Her every movement betokened a great affinity with the part; vocally, she was every bit as good. I did not think that Diana Damrau, probably the greatest Zerbinetta I have heard, made quite so convincing a girl, but musically I should have little but praise for her. Elizabeth Connell sounded gorgeous in the maternal role of Gertrud, although her diction was not always so clear as that of the rest of the cast. It becomes almost wearisome to say this upon his every appearance, but Thomas Allen yet again proved what a consummate musician and musical actor he is, as Peter. Jette Parker Young Artists Pumeza Matshikiza and Anita Watson both gave excellent performances in the lovable roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy respectively, cushioned and seemingly inspired by Davis and the orchestra. And then there was Anja Silja as the Witch. Age has certainly not dimmed her lustre; she remains a truly formidable vocal actress, with no need to ham up the part, presenting a truly nasty old woman of a sort children might actually meet and fear.

In this, Silja was assisted by the production. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier provided her with a Zimmer frame (which she did not need: we have all met such fraudulent recipients...) and a modern but slightly deranged appearance. This was a credible character, just as Hänsel was a credible boy. Not only had great attention gone into the Personenregie; it worked. There was a true sense of magic when the angels appeared and the children dreamed of Christmas, whilst the industrial ovens of the witch’s house brought a real danger to proceedings. The sets were uncontroversial without cloying – although I did think the space, if not the decor, for the house in the first act looked suspiciously like that for the directors’ Barber of Seville a few years ago. To have the forest, so crucial to the tales of the Brothers Grimm, visibly surrounding every scene was a welcome touch, although more might perhaps have been made of its menace. There was a veritable coup de théâtre in the explosion that followed the trapping of the witch – and the subsequent liberation of the biscuit-children, who sang their song rather well. It is a difficult balancing act, to present something that would work both for children and for adults, but I think that this production and this performance managed to do so.