Monday 10 December 2012

Hänsel und Gretel, Vienna Volksoper, 8 December 2012

Volksoper, Vienna

Peter – Morten Frank Larsen
Gertrud – Ulrike Steinsky
Hänsel – Eva Maria Riedl
Gretel – Anja-Nina Bahrmann
Witch – Robert Wörle
Sandman – Claudia Goebl
Dew-Fairy – Sera Gösch
Gingerbread Children – Students from the Universität für Musik, Vienna (chorus master: Denis O’Sullivan)

Karl Dönch (director)
Toni Businger (designs)

 Orchestra of the Vienna Volksper
Stage Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Guido Mancusi (conductor)
This was the first time that I had seen Humperdinck’s Märchenspiel, Hänsel und Gretel, in a German speaking-country. In Germany and Austria, its popularity – like that of Die Zauberflöte – has become especially popular amongst parents and grandparents who wish to take their charges to the opera. During Advent and Christmas, the tradition has become especially pronounced, with the result that I felt something of an interloper at this performance at the Vienna Volksoper. If the truth be told, it can be something of a trial sitting through a performance attended in good part by noisy children and their still noisier guardians – one certainly soon begins to think that the Witch had a point – but there nevertheless remained much to enjoy.

Karl Dönch’s production has nothing to scare the horses – no Jimmy Savile tracksuits here – but it is well observed, tells the story, and is graced by Toni Businger’s designs, ‘traditional’ in a sense that implies a genuine people’s tradition rather than an absurd harking back to something that never was. The parents’ house, the forest, the gingerbread house have all been loving constructed, and it would take a harder heart than mine not to feel a touch of seasonal enchantment at it all. (Yes, your hardened modernist actually admitted that.) Moreover, the Witch’s Ride was genuinely fun, stage trickery of a reassuringly old-fashioned variety ensuring that we saw a figure on a broomstick whizzing through the sky. Businger had also designed delightful pop-up cards as a synopsis for each act. If one is going to direct children to this opera – and in principle, I have my doubts, given that we are dealing with a work concerned with child abuse – then this is definitely the way to do it.

The Volksoper Orchestra has doubtless played this piece more times than it can remember; it was, at any rate, the 171st performance in the house. Certainly it was performed with relish and with love, ably guided by Guido Mancusi. The ballet-pantomime – provided that one could endure a gang of young angels with acting skills on a par with a school nativity play – was properly moving; indeed, I confess that a tear came to my eye at its climax. It was just a pity that sitting back and enjoying Humperdinck’s gorgeous if derivative – perhaps gorgeously derivative? – score was not an option given the fractious behaviour in the stalls. (One woman two rows in front took no fewer than seventeen photographs during that scene!)

Eva Maria Riedl offered a persuasively boyish Hänsel; it is not necessarily the easiest of tasks portraying a truculent little boy on stage, though it must be fun if one can. Anja-Nina Bahrmann presented a winning foil, at times quite beautifully voiced indeed, as Gretel. If Morten Frank Larsen’s acting skills exceeded beauty of tone as the Father, he certainly knew how to play the drunk; Ulrike Steinsky proved a properly put-upon yet caring Mother. Claudia Goebl and Sera Gösch both impressed as the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. However, it was Robert Wörle’s Witch that stole the show: malevolent, absurd, and deliciously hammed up. Rotting raven on his shoulder, broomstick in his hand, he was clearly having the time of his life. Those catchy tunes and their delightful setting lingered long in the memory.