Tuesday, January 1, 2008

IN REVIEW: Metropolitan Opera – Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel
Engelbert Humperdinck

Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Gretel: Christine Schäfer
Hansel: Alice Coote
Gertrude: Rosalind Plowright
The Witch: Philip Langridge
Peter: Alan Held
Production: Richard Jones
Set & Costume Designer: John Macfarlane
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Choreographer: Linda Dobell
English Version: David Pountney

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – (December 29, 2007) The Metropolitan Opera House closed the year with a bang (and a lovely bang too) with a broadcast of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. This gym of the German Repertoire is neglected in large part. This is because the opera was written for children in large part, and people still believe it’s subject matter to be childish – and in some ways it is – but this doesn’t mean that the opera has nothing to say.

The was some evidence of Peter Gelb (the Great Satan) and his style in this production but for once I found it completely satisfying. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski – Glyndebourne’s Music Director – led the orchestra in the finest playing I’ve ever heard them in. For once the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra had a German sound and his tempo and volume was completely appropriate.

German Soprano Christine Schäfer was difficult to understand in the English version of the opera, but as the performance went on it became unnoticeable. Schäfer’s sweet lyric soprano was perfect for Gretel. She worked perfectly moving about the registers seamlessly with a nearly perfect technique. Her physical portrayal was convincing and she proved herself not just a singing actress, but also a fine comic with her witty performance
Alice Coote’s Hansel was also very fine. Like Schäfer, Coote was a smart actress and provided sufficient charm for the boy. She had the awkwardness of a seven year old child and made me smile as the opera went forward.

The low point of the evening was the Gertrude (Mother) of Rosalind Plowright. The Mezzo had that squawk that some dramatic mezzos have. She proved fine for the part, but I wouldn’t like to hear her as much else. The voice was large and her acting was convincing. Her prayer that her children return was very beautiful.

American Baritone Alan Held’s portrayal of Peter (Father) was the highlight of the evening. He sings a sort monologue about the difficulty of life as a poor man, and he left the crowd wanting more. He was fatherly and kind. Held will appear as the Dutchman in Washington later this season, and it will be worth a trip.

Philip Langridge appeared as the Witch. The role was perfect for him, and it gave him an opportunity to show off his gift as an actor. The voice was large yet brilliant and lyric, it was perfect for parts like this or Loge. The Witch’s part is also very small, and he left us wanting more or wishing that the villain had consumed the children so that we might her another aria about how good they taste.

The set was witty, using large pieces of artwork as a the curtain between acts. In the beginning as the prelude played there was a large empty plate which showed the children’s hunger, later as the children entered the haunted forest the plate was replaced with an awful mouth that was hungry for blood. The device worked well.

The first act took place in a sparse and small room. This was the children’s impoverished home. It is clean but shows sings of disrepair. Hansel and Gretel play games to pass the time rather than doing their charms. Their dancing game has an enchanting duet (which later becomes a hymn of praise and thanksgiving) and the pair performed the scene very well. They break the glass jug of milk, the family’s only source of nourishment and when Mother finds out she sends them away into the woods to pick berries so they will have something to eat. She prays to find a way to free her children.

Father comes home drunk and then shows his wife the huge amount of food he has gotten during the day and telling her the milk was “no loss on a day like this”. He asks where the children are and nearly beats her for sending the children into the woods. He explains that the woods have an awful old woman who likes to eat children living there. The parents are soon off to look for Hansel and Gretel.

The visual highlight of the opera came at the end of the second act after the Sandman puts the children to sleep. Traditionally they are in a wood, but in the Met’s version the siblings found themselves in a large room with wallpaper that looked like the forest. It was very artistic (very Gelb) but worked well. There was a long table. Sandman blesses the children and keeps them safe in the night. The production also broke from tradition by eliminating the angels that often come to protect the children after they say evening prayers in a stunning duet.

In this version there was a long dream sequence where the children are no longer hungry because they are fed by a large group of funny looking chefs and a butler with the head of a fish. It serves to enforce the feeling that the children are very hungry, and you can understand their happiness as the long table is set for a king, and they are able to eat.

In the third act there is no gingerbread house, instead the children are beckoned though the curtain which has become a mouth with it’s tongue sticking out and a cake on the tongue. The children can’t resist the treat and find themselves in the Witch’s industrial kitchen. Gingerbread children can be seen all around and when the audiences catches a peek into the large stainless steel refrigerator they see arms and legs.

The Witch is killed by Hansel and Gretel as they push her into the oven. Her spell is broken, and after an explosion and a moment of darkness and time in from of a curtain (now a broken plate) the Hansel and Gretel find that the gingerbread statues have turned back into live children. Here the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus sings the sublime chorus as they cry because their eyesight has been lost. Hansel and Gretel break this spell too by giving every child a “tender touch”. They sing and joyously as they once more see the light, and it was the most touching moment I’ve seen over the last year.

Finally Mother and Father (Gertrude and Peter) find the children. Held performs the melody of the children’s dancing duet, but this time he thanks God for delivering the family from evil. The production avoids obvious Germanic clichés and feels like it could be just about anywhere. The message is clear, family and love is the most important thing and that God will deliver those who love their families.


Will said...

Good morning, John. I found you today and indeed I find I don't agree with some of your opinions, but that's wholly irrelevant. You are serious and passionate about opera and I have placed a link to Opera in America on DesignerBlog.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy 2008.

Anonymous said...

The Emperor has no clothes. What a fiasco for family christmas show.