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Humperdinck;Engelbert [Import]

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 10 reviews
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Nahrhaft Aug. 2 2009
By Todd Kay - Published on
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
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.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Very enjoyable with some reservations Jan. 9 2011
By Mr John Haueisen - Published on
Format: Blu-ray Verified Purchase
There are many reasons for enjoying this performance of Hansel and Gretel, with just a few reservations.
First, the reservations:

1. Yes, the witch does have a "cooler" filled with the hanging bodies of dead children. I tried to understand the reason behind this, and I think it might be to impress viewers that the witch is an evil person, deserving of the fate that Hansel and Gretel have in store for her.

2. Why does the witch have an aluminum walker? The only explanation I can come up with is that it may be to show her deceptiveness--how she tries to appear as a sweet old lady that "wouldn't hurt a fly."

3. Why does the witch appear early on to have her bare breasts exposed through her blue sweater? I really don't have an explanation for this unless it's some kind of pseudo-intellectual device to suggest that she's presenting a maternal image to the lost children. I just think it was gratuitous and not beneficial to the production.

OK, so what are the reasons for enjoying this performance?

First, the Blu-ray recording allows remarkable clarity of the picture. I almost thought that Hansel and Gretel's house was right there in my living room. Also, the sound (PCM 2.0 and PCM 5.1) was impressive. Be careful, when the witch's oven explodes, it may well frighten your neighbors.

The music is given full justice by the Royal Opera House Orchestra led by Colin Davis. The stage is a more contemporary setting, where you'll see Hansel and Gretel's parents as a working class couple. He comes home from a hard day of work, and she clutches her purse, worrying about family finances.

Hansel is sung and acted perfectly by a tousled hair Angelika Kirchschlager who really comes off as a typical "difficult" brother for Gretel.

Anja Silja does good work as a convincing witch, but I still can't forget that bare-breasted blue sweater--darn them for doing that!

Finally, the best feature of this performance: Diana Damrau. I know what an excellent singer she is, but I simply couldn't imagine her in the role of a little girl. She does it incredibly well. She sings the song about the little man in a purple cloak in the woods, while standing as he did on one leg--which makes his description and her childlike nature more genuine (and it's not easy to sing a song while standing on one leg). Kudos should go to the makeup and costuming people as well for turning such a glamorous and beautiful soprano into a believable little Gretel.

As others have suggested, if you were planning to watch this with children, the hanging dead kids and the bare breasts might be a reason not to. If you love seeing new and different takes on old familiar operas, this is the one for you!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Don't miss this! April 8 2010
By R. T. Combs - Published on
Format: Blu-ray Verified Purchase
This is simply one of the best opera productions I ever saw. Damrau is her usual incredible, magical self and the rest of the cast is equally excellent. The sets and costumes are decidedly non-traditional but they work amazingly well and the staging is a truly magical --- filled with imaginative touches. This is a Hansel and Gretel for people who usually find the opera a bore --- it is mezmerizing --- don't miss it!
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Humperdinck scores big! Sept. 23 2009
By Taylor - Published on
Format: Blu-ray
This is one of my new favorite Blu-rays - the picture is incredible and the sound is wonderful. The performers are all incredibly talented, and let me say - this is NOT your typical opera. It's full of hysterical innuendos and the characters expressions are not typically opera (aka they actually have expression). If you're new to opera and wonder how Hansel and Gretel translates to the sung-word, I highly recommend picking this up!

Oh - I should mention that if you're thinking about showing this to your kids, watch it first. There is an interesting twist mid-way through the second act. In true Grimm fashion, Hansel and Gretel is a pretty dark story!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Fabulous March 3 2010
By Bruce Johnson - Published on
Format: DVD
I agree with the reviewers of the Blu-Ray version of Hansel and Gretel that this is a wonderful and creative production. We showed it to our Opera and Ballet Group at a retirement home and they really liked all three Acts. We warned them about the Act 3 witch portrayal, briefly revealed in the synopsis shown before Act 1. Since Acts 1 and 2 were viewed before dinner, we were surprised and pleased that nearly everyone came back after dinner and enjoyed Act 3.

Damrau and Kirchschlager blend so well in their duets, one wishes they had been cast as Sophie and Octavian in Renee Fleming's recording of Der Rosenkavalier. That would have produced a memorable trio!