11/30/2001 - and 1 December 01
Englebert Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel
Laura Claycomb (Gretel), Pamela Helen Stephen (Hansel), Anne Schwanewilms (Mother/Witch), Dietrich Henschel (Father), Susan Gritton (Sandman/Dew fairy)
New London Children's Choir, London Symphony Orchestra
Richard Hickox (conductor)
A complete report of the London Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of Hansel and Gretel (seen 1 December) could easily consist of endless talk of the joys of the score. Hansel and Gretel is almost performance-proof, and brilliant theatre given a modicum of production values and imagination. But hearing it as music drama with the music out front takes it into a different plane of wonder and nostalgia. Although the audience seemed pretty grown up, many of them must have had inward silly grins by the end. It's easy to love the tunes, and after a rehearing or two (even on pianos or a rustly recording) to be awed and moved by the incredible interworking of the themes, the way the angels and cake-waltz emerge fully to the point from all kinds of musical places and the witch lurks throughout. But it takes a full-strength concert-orchestra performance like this to bring out the extra emotional richness of the orchestration and (not as paradoxical as it might seem) the vocal setting. This is even more amazing, since Humperdinck's orchestration came last, a through-composed rework of a play with songs.
Hickox and his performers left you with the impression that this was exactly as it ought to be. There were a few obvious choices: the witch had more than a touch of the Wagnerian nasties in the rock solid brass and bass instruments, and Father was similarly robust, perhaps coloured by Dietrich Henschel's extremely butch baritone, but also obviously a match for the witch, even though he does nothing except drink and moralize, while the children have the gumption to kill her. But the world-picture of Hansel and Gretel has the specious rationality of dreams, and it works. The dessert music, the luscious theme played and sung when the children first touch the house, was perhaps lighter, less Wagnerian and more Viennese than usual and perhaps already nostalgic. Could Richard Strauss, who conducted the first performance of Hansel and Gretel have remembered the heartbreaking power of the waltz twenty years later when he needed a symbol of passing time and lost youth in Der Rosenkavalier?
The singers were all impeccably cast, and delightful. The roles were characterized, with now nearly compulsory appropriate concert dress, but there was no staging except for some elaborate misbehaviour in the auditorium by the witch and a flying leap exit by the father in hot pursuit. Pamela Helen Stephen (in a striped pants suit that one hopes she got from a bargain bin) and Laura Claycomb were spot on in the title roles, definitely children but aware of the darkness around them and vocally gorgeous. Anne Schwanewilms was a decidedly glamorous mother, sympathetic and miserable at her children's suffering but running out of reserves. She delivered a tour-de-force as an overgrown schoolgirl witch in flared short skirt and high boots, reconfiguring her music stand as a broom at the end of her gallop, having been prevented from nicking the cellos' stand. In a staged production, she might have been mugging, but somehow her personality is so powerful it worked here. Her singing was spot on, but her voice seemed a touch thin, though she is young and wise not to push it. Susan Gritton was a glorious Sandman and Dew fairy, while Dietrich Henschel, in a leather suit rather better cut than those of yer average forester, was similarly luxuriously cast.
The New London Children's Choir provided the distant dreaminess of the semi-woken children, and a cracking song-and-dance followed by hymn to the end. But this was really the LSO's performance. It's a great shame it won't be one of their live recordings.