Fairy tales! As a child I couldn’t get enough of them and I still love them. My small bookcase was well stocked with them then and my current bookcase has several shelves with every fairy tale I could lay my hands on.
The story of the children lost in a dark wood, the wicked witch and – yes! – the gingerbread house particularly appealed to me; a girl who loved sweets.
I knew that the fairy tale had once been turned into an opera. In the old German film adaptation of Kärstner’s The Parent Trap, Luise/Lottie visits the performance of Hänsel und Gretel conducted by her father. This very dramatic scene made a huge impression on me at the time, so the opera was very high on my wish list.
My first real introduction to the opera, however, was downright disappointing. And I still cannot get really excited about the work. It is not sweet or scary enough for me. However, I immediately admit that a beautiful, well sung and acted production will give me a lot of pleasure!
The two DVD recordings known by me are certainly all that, and I really wouldn’t know which of the two to choose
Royal Opera House, 2008
Colour! That is what is most striking about Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s London (Covent Garden 2008) production. The enchanted (and enchanting) fairy- tale forest is green, the sky blue, Gretel’s jacket red, and the biscuits, cakes, pies and puddings are all the colours of the rainbow. Or even more. And they are so very bright!
It is a true feast for the eyes, but the singing is also at the highest level. Diana Damrau is a delightful Gretel and Angelika Kirschlager a boyish Hänsel. Even in the scenes together with real children, they are not out of place.
Elisabeth Connell and Thomas Allen, here as real- life riff- raff, are good for a lot of delicious “schadenfreude”. And the fact that Anja Silja convinces more with her acting than with her singing should be forgiven, she is after all a witch (Opus Arte OA BD 7032)
Metropolitan Opera, 2008
Richard Jones’ production, originally created for the Welsh National Opera and recorded at the Met in 2008, is just as much fun.
Chistine Schäfer (Gretel) and Alice Coote (Hänsel) are perhaps just a little more brazen, but Rosalind Plowright and Alan Held are just as deliciously caricatured as Connell and Allen.
What makes this performance an absolute must have is Philip Langridge’s witch, even Anja Silja cannot match that! And the dream pantomime at the end of the first act is simply delicious.
During the overture and the interval, we get a look behind the scenes and get to see the make-up artists in action. Very special!
Vladimir Jurowski conducts very lightly, almost belcantesque.
Warning for purists: the opera is sung in English! (Warner 5099920630898)
Below a short trailer:
von Karajan, Milan1954
Talking about foreign languages: it is not at all surprising that an opera intended for a mainly young audience is performed in a language they can understand.
In 1954, von Karajan conducted the fairy tale in Italian in Milan, but with two German sopranos in the leading roles: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Sena Jurinac. Which makes the notion of “intelligibility” immediately relative.
Rolando Panerai is a delightful “Pietro”, but of course the CD’s greatest attractions are the Sand- and Taumännchen sung irresistibly by Rita Streich. The orchestral sound is very refined despite the analogue sound (Date DAT 12314).
Von Karajan, 1953
Refinement is also the best word to describe the (studio) recording of Karajan from 1953. It is fully worth it for the overture alone. Orchestrally it sounds even better than the Milan recording, but that may be due to the excellent sound quality.
Both Elisabeths: Grümmer and Schwarzkopf sound very credibly childlike. Their ‘Brüderchen , komm tanz mit mir’ is simply irresistible. It is just a pity that their voices sound so similar that you cannot really tell whether it is Hansel or his sister who is singing. (Warner 509996407162)
There are five reasons to buy the recording Kurt Eichhorn made for RCA in 1971: Anna Moffo (Hans), Helen Donath (Gretel), Christa Ludwig (witch), Arleen Auger and Lucia Popp (the ‘males’).
Charlotte Berthold and Fischer Dieskau are not really exciting and the orchestra is no more than okay, but those five ladies! And secretly I think I may find Helen Donath’s Gretel the most beautiful of all. (BMG 74321 252812)
Below Anna Moffo and Helen Donath in `Abendsagen`: