Hänsel und Gretel - for children!
New National Theatre
11/27/1998 - 28, 29 November 1, 2 December 1998
Engelbert Humperdinck : Hänsel und Gretel
Rika Shiratsuchi (Hänsel), Kaoru Nishino (Gretel), Satoru Aoto (Peter, the Father), Akemi Obata (Gertrud, the Mother), Yoshiko Kushida (the Witch), Eiko Soga (Sandman), Emi Sawahata (Dew Fairy)
The Tokyo Philhamrmonic Orchestra, New National Theatre Chorus & Setagaya Junior Chorus, Kotaro Sato (conductor)
Keiichi Nishizawa (stage director), Yukio Horio (set designer), Motoi Hattori (lighting designer)
Presented by the New National Theatre and the Nikikai Opera Foundation
A delightful Sunday afternoon's opera, performed in Japanese and directed unambiguously towards the children in the audience - of whom there were some though not many.
The story was introduced during the overture by two children reading the tales of the Brothers Grimm from a book. The action took place on a revolving stage, using effectively the back, as well as the front, of the family home and the witch's house. The woods were represented in black silhouette around the perimeter of the revolving stage, which allowed for a variety of (not overdone) lighting effects. If the style of the first act was vaguely 19th-century German, the witch's house was irresistibly and deliciously American (Disney? the doughnut chains?), magnificently iced and surmounted by an oversized strawberry.
The drama was uniformly good. Shiratsuchi and Nishino made a thoroughly believable pair of children - small and energetic in an appealing way. Kushida (or Kushuda, as spelt in the programme!) was a stylish witch, first appearing as a hausfrau cook and then changing into a fashionable spiky black and red outfit. All the spectacles were delivered effectively - the sandman and dew fairy scenes, the protective angels, the witch's ride, the liberation of the spell-bound children etc. The four devilish confectionary-manufacturing witch's assistants were a particular delight. No child, or mother, (or adult!) need have been disappointed.
Musically it was undistinguished. The notes may have been there, but the words weren't. At first I wondered what language was being used. German had been originally announced for November 27 (and 29 and December 2, Japanese for November 28 and December 1), but in fact it was in Japanese. Computer text surtitles were used, indicating a certain lack of confidence that the 99 percent Japanese audience would understand what was being sung! The one outstanding voice was that of Satoru Aoto (Peter), a clear well-focussed baritone, dead on the note and with excellent diction.
Kotaro Sato's conducting was on the stodgy side. The orchestra produced a rich, mellow sound, but the melodies were trapped and unable to sing - rather like the enchanted children in the witch's house.
From the second level (dress circle or whatever) of the New National Theatre it is possible to get a good view of the theatre as a whole. There is a lot of dark wood and the general effect is sombre. A visible beam of light from above illuminates the conductor in the pit, rather like the Virgin Mary in Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation!
The New National Theatre remains less than totally welcoming to international visitors. There is no calendar of events in English (unlike at other entertainment centres in the city). The programme contained an English 'symopsis' (sic) but it had evidently not been checked before publication.