At one time, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel was as much a staple ingredient of a theatrical Christmas as The Nutcracker. Now, however, performances are few and far between, perhaps because the work is perceived to be unsophisticated for modern audiences. This is a shame, because it is not only extremely charming but also an intense psychological drama, as the recent WNO/Richard Jones production demonstrated.
For its first complete BBC Proms performance (orchestral excerpts were frequently performed in the first half of the 20th century), conductor Jane Glover assembled an outstanding cast of international singers, the BBC Concert Orchestra and the director David Edwards (to semi-stage the piece) for a very endearing and persuasive account of the opera.
It’s true that David Edwards didn’t bother to probe the darker side of the drama, but with Carol Golder’s gingerbread men design and Bernie Davis’ atmospheric strobed and coloured lighting effects, he transformed the Albert Hall into as convincing an arena for opera at the Proms as one could expect. So ravishing were the musical and vocal performances that the unashamed pantomimic style was in no way detrimental to the overall product.
The score was vitally performed from the word go by Glover and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Written between 1890-93, Hansel and Gretel is a product of the post-Wagnerian ethos, full of rich string textures and bold brass sounds. It was a riveting artistic juxtaposition to the period-instrument Rheingold the night before, whose musical influence on Humperdinck is extremely apparent. The drama, however, owes more to The Magic Flute. Humperdinck’s place as the bridge in German opera between Wagner and Strauss is rarely appreciated, but here was a performance to bring him to the public’s attention once more.
Jennifer Larmore as Hansel and Rebecca Evans as Gretel provided vocal beauty in the title roles. It’s a tremendous challenge for mature singers to portray the innocence and simplicity of children, but on this occasion they excelled, aided, perhaps, by a traditional Bavarian dress for Gretel and a black costume for Hansel.
Elizabeth Connell portrayed the Mother very well, particularly in her despair on realising that she has sent her children into danger. The solid baritone Alan Opie was the most rewarding singer as the Father, every bit as good as in his recent performance as Balstrode in Covent Garden’s Peter Grimes. His voice was both well projected and idiomatically Germanic. Mary Nelson’s Sandman and Gillian Keith’s Dew Fairy were sadly small parts for such talented singers, both of them having a beautifully ringing tone.
Jane Henschel stole the show as the witch, and rightly so. This American mezzo-soprano is a versatile and engaging artist who deserves to be seen more often. Happily, she will be performing Erda in the new Covent Garden Ring. The Witch has to have the right combination of humour and menace, and Henschel got it just right. Her performance of the Witch’s spell stopped the show, and was one of the many highlights of the evening.
The London Oratory School sang well enough, although they lacked contrast, characterisation and excitement. I particularly hated their stupid arm movements, which were of the under-rehearsed variety usually confined to school productions and not the BBC Proms. The children’s choir aside, this was a memorable performance of a neglected masterpiece.