Hansel and Gretel

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Composer: Engelbert Humperdinck

Libretto: Adelheid Wette (the composer’s sister)

Based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm

First Produced: Weimar, 1893

Company: Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 2008

Director: Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier

Sets: Christian Fenouillat

Costumes: Agostino Cavalca

Lighting: Paule Constable

Video Director: Sue Judd

Royal Opera House Orchestra

Tiffin Boys’ Choir & Children’s Chorus

Conductor: Colin Davis



Gretel: Diana Damrau

Hansel: Angelika Kirchschlager

Witch: Anja Silja

Peter: Thomas Allen

Gertrud: Elizabeth Connell

Sandman: Pumeza Matshikiza

Dew Fairy: Anita Watson



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 34.86 GB

Bit Rate: High (37~40 Mbps)

German PCM 5.1

German PCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German, Italian, French & Spanish

Region: All

Opera runtime: 109 minutes

Opus Arte 2008



Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A+

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A-

Image: A

Audio: A+

Extras Features: B

Recommendation: A



Hansel and Gretel may be the first and most important example of a home brew opera.  The finished product is as much the work of composer Engelbert Humperdinck as his sister, Adelheid Wette, who wrote the libretto and sorted out how to tell the famous Grimm fairy tale in operatic terms.  It is she, as the writer in the enclosed booklet tells us, who introduced the children’s prayer before they sleep in the forest, also the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, and that the Witch should be turned into cake instead of burnt to a crisp in the oven.  And most important, it was Adelheid who discarded the idea that the parents abandoned the children in the forest.



The Story

The operant motif in Hansel and Gretel - this one anyhow - is HUNGER.  Right out of the box, these kids are hungry. The family is poor, and hasn’t had what to eat for some days.  When Gretel finds a pitcher of cream left by a neighbor the two children are in heaven.  Their mother comes into their bedroom only to discover the children have turned it topsy-turvy in their excitement about the cream, instead of completing their chores.  During the altercation with their mother, the pitcher is broken, adding desperation to the list of offences.  Their mother, in a fit of pique, demands the children go into the forest to pick berries.


Later that afternoon, father appears with a bagful of groceries.  He had great luck at the village and sold all of his wares at a great price.  In their joy, Hansel and Gretel are forgotten, but not for long.  Suddenly father asks about the children and mother tells him she sent them out to pick berries.  The father becomes concerned for them since it is known that the forest is the home of a children-eating witch.  The two of them go off in search of them.



Meanwhile Hansel and Gretel have become lost in the woods as night falls.  They are visited first by the Sandman and, before falling asleep, remember to offer their evening prayer. They dream of angels and creatures and family and presents.  The Dew Fairy comes to wake them to the beauty of the forest.  They discover a house made of gingerbread near them and begin eating it only to find it was a trap laid by the witch.  Once inside the home of the witch, the children are more or less immobilized as the witch prepares them for baking, pointing out other children who are hung up in the pantry awaiting a similar fate.  Gretel figures out how to break the spell and frees Hansel who pushes the witch into the oven. The resulting explosion sets the other children free and they all enjoy witch cake until Hansel and Gretel‘s parents arrive to bring them all home.




In the enclosed booklet Sarah Lenton writes about how Stage Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier re-imagined the classic opera for this new Royal Opera House production and how the stage crew pulled it all off.  The “Fairytale Feature” on the disc visualizes some of this as well.  There are a number of notable changes from how the opera is traditionally conceived for the stage, among them: that the gingerbread house that the children eat from and the witch’s kitchen are two different things – the former being a normal sized cake with the witch herself lurking in the background.


The children’s room is the first thing we see and it sets the stage, so to speak, for the illusions to follow. The floor is raked backward into an expressionistic series of lines of sight such that anyone standing near the door at the back of the room appears larger than the actors closer to the audience.  This is no casual effect since the director goes to some lengths to place the mother at the door and rear wall when the children are also in the room, making her appear quite huge even though the actors are all roughly the same height.  Try as we might insist that the mother (or anyone else who goes back their) is actually smaller than they appear – which, of course she is, being further away – she remains larger to our eye.  This trick also sets up the illusions that make up the second and third acts, not do much in design as that what is seen is meant to be illusory.



Back to the witch: No cone hat, warts or broomstick – just a granny who creaks along, aided by a walker, with her sweater unbuttoned (very strange, that) when no one is looking.  As she comes upon the children eating her cake she attempts to seduce them into coming to her home.  However, the witch is sufficiently repulsive that the children refuse in manner rather than appearance, leading to her having to resort to extreme measures and a little hocus-pocus.


The Music

Engelbert Humperdinck is one of Richard Wagner’s more famous pupils, not that it’s all that apparent from the present score.  That said see if you don’t hear the ghost of the great third act quintet from Die Meistersinger lurking behind the Evening Prayer. What Humperdinck did learn from the master, with whom he worked during a production of Parsifal, was a technique that enabled him to turn a series of German folk songs into one of the most popular operas in the repertory.  It is some historical interest that Hansel and Gretel received its premiere at the hands of Richard Strauss, hardly the most Wagnerian of German composer.




Hansel and Gretel is traditionally performed with Hansel sung by a mezzo soprano, and so it is here. Angelika Kirchschlager makes for an impish boy, prettier than our Gretel perhaps, but some boys are. Gretel, who gets the lion’s share of the work, musically and dramatically, is performed here by Diana Damrau, who excels in glee, fear, and elegant singing.  I can’t praise her enough.  Their Act 2 prayer duet is so heartwarming it damn near draws tears.  I’ve heard the witch sung by tenor Peter Schreier on record, and, frankly, I like him as well if for no other reason than for relief from all those females.  Still, if you’re going to do it the old fashioned way you can hardly ask for better than Anja Silja: gnarly, senile, overconfident and oblivious by turns.  (Having reviewed Salome just before I dove into this opera, visions of that Biblical wild-eyed creature kept intruding in my imagination, adding unexpected comic relief.)



The mother, Gertrud, gets a journeyman reading by Elizabeth Connell; Thomas Allen’s Peter, the father, is boisterous and sympathetic by turns.  The Sandman is costumed as a dwarf, and not an especially attractive one at that. Soprano Pumeza Matshikiza sings it delicately, though the production minimizes the part.  Anita Watson as the Dew Fairy looks ripe enough but for this evening’s performance she sounds a little scratchy.  To end on a high note, I want to give special mention for the Tiffin Boys’ Choir & Children’s Chorus, a most Oliver Twisty collection of ragamuffins who sing like angels.



Video & Image

For the most part Opus Arte’s generously high bit rate pays off with dense, coherent images with wonderfully saturated colors, near-perfect contrast control and not a transfer hiccup in sight.  Alas, there are long stretches where little can save the director’s choice to linger in the pit.  It’s darker down there than usual, so that the players and their instruments don’t exude the kind of luster we would like; and because it’s so dark the players’ music scores blow out against the darkness more than usual - quite the eyesore, that; third, Colin Davis has to be one of the laziest conductors to watch in action: it’s hard to understand how he achieves the kind of authority he has over the ROHO in order to get from them the kind of tone and ensemble he does.  In short the prelude and two interludes are seriously boring.



As it happens, Opus Arte has a ready solution at hand but they didn’t think to use it: They could have simply substituted their Animated Cast Gallery for the orchestral video during the opera’s prelude.  By the way, it will come as some surprise that this video has no title card - not at the beginning or the end.  There is a credit role that includes the title, but it’s not the same, is it?



Opus Arte provides their usual uncompressed surround and stereo mixes.  Both are excellent with natural, unclipped voices, even at the children's most exuberant singing;  and lustrous, well balanced playing and plenty of breadth, weight and textured detail from the pit.  I finally opted for the surround, which opens up the stage but not to excess and provides just a tad more oomph to the exploding oven, which is already quite a smashing acoustic event in stereo.




Illustrated Synopsis (2:00)

Animated Cast Gallery (3:50)

Interview with Colin Davis (9:00)

Fairytales Feature (11:22)

Cinema trailer (2:14)





The singing from the major players is exceptional, the orchestra sounds great, the stage action is wonderfully photographed and transferred in high-definition.  I have regrets about the Dew Fairy and Sandman for different reasons, and there are long dull stretches as the camera focuses on the orchestra instead of just about anything else.  All the same, warmly recommended.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

September 11, 2012

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