Last year's EMI Met DVD (a performance that had been HD-broadcast to movie theaters on 1 January 2008) put considerable technical brilliance, both musical and in terms of stagecraft, in the service of a remarkably coarse and charmless production. Opus Arte now sticks its oar in with a strong alternative: a Royal Opera House, Covent Garden performance that also was shown in theaters, dated 9 December 2008 -- near the end of the same calendar year the Met's had inaugurated. The two performances contrast in many ways: The Met's was in a new English translation; the ROH, with Teutonic divas in the three longest roles, is in the language the composer set. Met conductor Vladimir Jurowski's reading was all Romantic extroversion and exuberance; the ROH's Sir Colin Davis favors Classical restraint. The Met had a tenor Witch; the ROH opts for the more traditional choice of a veteran soprano. In most areas, the faceoff has to be scored a victory for the British.
In one of the bonus featurettes, Sir Colin Davis opines that the elegance and concentration of Humperdinck's music makes HÄNSEL UND GRETEL more Mozartian than, as is usually said, Wagnerian. One can hear this view in his understated approach. Everything is precisely blended, and the maestro seems to go out of his way *not* to call attention to symphonic transitions within scenes -- the effect is that of well-oiled gears shifting ever so quietly. I could imagine someone preferring this to the work of Jurowski on the Met DVD, perhaps on the grounds that Davis is "not getting in between the listener and the music" or is "letting the music speak for itself." But I prefer the bolder colors, more imaginative accenting, and sharper rhythmic profile of Jurowski, who (let us not mince words) also had the better orchestra with which to work. The dazzling execution of Humperdinck's score is, in fact, the best reason to acquire the EMI DVD, and it is the Met's one significant boasting point in head-to-head comparison here.
About our faux-youthful protagonists, Angelika Kirchschlager (Hänsel) and Diana Damrau (Gretel), I have no reservations. Physically, they are such a convincing pair of German children that they may be unrecognizable from prior encounters as, for example, Octavian and the Queen of the Night. They sing beautifully individually, and they also team affectingly. Whereas the Met's Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer were saddled with a staging that emphasized Hänsel's bullying and Gretel's suffering, Kirchschlager and Damrau are allowed to be affectionate companions-in-arms. Their carrying out of the choreography in the dancing lesson is delightful, and Act II's Evening Prayer is exquisitely moving to hear as well as to see. For two minutes and 35 seconds, you may well forget dramatic context, stop thinking about "Hänsel and Gretel," and consider that these singers could represent *any* children of any time and place who are cold and hungry in the night, frightened of monsters imagined or real, clinging to one another for warmth. It almost but does not quite make an anticlimax of what comes next: the dream pantomime in which the Guardian Angels (winged and white-robed but with animal heads) conjure up a cozy study with a fireplace, with mute cameos from Father and Mother, who present gifts to the dreaming children. I would not dream (no pun intended) of spoiling the conclusion of this scene, but it is logical and a little heartbreaking.
Armed with the piercing shards of what was an important dramatic-soprano voice in the 1960s, Anja Silja, 68 at the time of this recording, soldiers on. Although her instrument has not always done her bidding or been pleasing to the ears, her musical instincts have never deserted her. These, her stage presence and the intensity of her declamation allow her to create a full and imposing Knusperhexe. Thomas Allen tells a good tale as Father Peter, but Maestro Davis is at his most blank in the scene for the parents, which just seems there to be gotten through uneventfully, and Elizabeth Connell disappoints as Mother Gertrud. With Anja Silja on deck in the second half as the Witch, it may not have been the brightest idea to cast a Mother with a shrill and cutting top. That aside, Connell does not seem to have been allowed or encouraged to find a sympathetic core to this unhappy, exhausted woman. Turn to Helga Dernesch in the Solti/Everding/DG film to see something extraordinary made (in close-up, yet) of Mother's prayer, post banishment of the children.
Directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, commendably, do not shy away from the source fairy tale's darker elements, but they cannot resist a few debatable "adult" touches, and so parental discretion is strongly advised. In the happy interlude before Father learns how Mother has punished the children, the parents begin to undress for a romp on Gretel's bed (the whole first scene is set in the children's bedroom rather than the usual kitchen). At her first appearance, Silja's Witch wears her dowdy blue sweater unbuttoned with nothing underneath, exposing improbably supple and round, indeed soccer-ball-like prosthetic enhancements. For her confrontation with the children, fortunately, she buttons up. The bodies of previously captured children are visible hanging from nooses in the Witch's freezer -- they are obviously dummies, and they revive on schedule and are replaced with real children when the Witch herself is conquered, but it lingers as a grisly image. Hänsel and Gretel do not fully partake in the celebratory close; as the other children greedily devour the baked Witch, they still cling to each other in isolation, survivors of a terrible ordeal. (At final curtain, Kirchschlager and Damrau slowly back away from the tableau, toward the audience, and initially remain in character, pretending to be frightened and overwhelmed by the audience's cheers and applause. Later in the ovations, Anja Silja receives and basks in mock booing from the ROH audience for her villainous turn.)
On the whole, this is a worthy live, up-to-date supplement to the aforementioned 1981 Solti/DG film, which boasts a stunningly consistent cast of its period (Fassbänder, Gruberova, Prey, Dernesch, Jurinac), plus the orchestral sheen of the Vienna Philharmonic, but was filmed on sets with below-average lip-sync work. It is good to see that the ROH has not adopted the regrettable practice in the United States (at the Met as well as in smaller regional theaters) of giving this opera in English, presumably under the assumption that children will find it more accessible if the foreign words they can't understand without titles are replaced with English words they can't understand without titles. And, of course, we would never want to send our youth away thinking that opera appreciation will entail listening to people singing in a foreign language.
Humperdinck's short opera is excessively spread out across two discs here, but if there were some demonstrable audio and/or visual gain in the extravagance (and not just an inflation of the list price), I suppose I should declare myself in favor.