Saturday 20 December 2008

Review of Hansel and Gretel

If it's Christmas it must be Hansel and Gretel, except that David Pountney's ENO production seems to have fallen out of use and Covent Garden, amazingly, have not performed the work since before the war. That has now changed and they have a new production directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. It has been double cast but we saw the first cast on Thursday (18th December).

Set Designer Christian Fenouillat has provided a neat single set. Basically a sloping sided box, so that the rear of the stage is a square raised above floor level. For act 1 the front space is taken by Hansel (Angelika Kirchschlager) and Gretel's (Diana Damrau) bedroom; we never see the kitchen where this act of the opera usually takes place. Then for act 2 this disappears and we learn that the box is covered with images of the wood. The rear 'wall' is in fact used to display a variety of effects, initially an non-threatening image of the wood which gradually changes to a threatening one. Then the Sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza) appears, using the raised level of the rear opening to make her body appear smaller than it is. Finally, the angels appear from the same opening, creating a fantasy fireside along with Mother (Elizabeth Connell) and Father (Thomas Allen).

Act 3 opens with the Dew Fairy (Anita Watson) appearing from the rear along with her cleaning trolley and she proceeds to clean up after the shenanigans at the end of Act 2. When the Witch's hut appears it is a small scale, edible cake in the shape of the hut. We glimpse the witch (Anja Silja) who, when not seen by the children, has exposed (false) breasts like a fertility image.

When Silja does appear she is the embodiment of a frightening old woman, albeit a slightly glamorous one. When the children try to flee the rear of the stage changes and their exit is cut of with a huge deep freeze containing the suspended bodies of dead children. Then the forest turns into the witch's kitchen, where she cooks the bodies of young children into gingerbread. The result is freaky rather than scary but the transformation is eminently theatrical.

Damrau and Kirschlager formed a wonderful team as the two kids and their hi-jinks seemed to make more sense in the context of them lazing in their bedroom. Connell and Allen also managed to develop a credible relationship in what is quite a short time. Once in the wood, Damrau and Kirschlager continued to entrance and develop distinctly separate personalities.

As the witch, Silja was scary without ever being hackneyed and her scream and laugh were wonderful. She is still a wonderful singing actor, but her voice now how so much vibrato that you are uncertain what note she is singing. This did matter, but given the strength of her characterisation, this mattered less than it might have.

The children from Tiffin were a little disappointing, but it seemed that Colin Davis did not allow them very much leeway both in terms of the volume of the orchestra and the amount of stage business they had been given.

Davis and the orchestra gave a lovingly rich account of the score. This is very much an orchestrally driven account of the piece. Davis's speeds were on the moderate side but it never felt slow, simply a gently rich interpretation.

The production had a number of quirky points and was most enjoyable. It does not say as much as Pountney did, but Leiser and Caurier have certainly provided a very revivable account of the opera.

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