Opera Reviews
7 August 2020
Untitled Document

An atmospheric concert version of Hansel und Gretel

by Catriona Graham
Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel
Edinburgh International Festival
15 August 2018

It is easy to hear echoes of Wagner in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, especially in a concert performance without the distractions of actual broken jugs, spilt milk and gingerbread hedges. It is also a chance to appreciate how atmosphere is created by the music and the quality of singing rather than lighting effects and staging

In this grim fairy tale, it is the hunger of poverty which drives events.  Laura Wilde, in a pretty pink and white frock and sparkly flats, and Elizabeth DeShong in navy trousers and long cardy were Gretel and Hansel respectively. Their voices belied their childlike stance and expressions, yet conveyed the mischief and excitement of their play.
When their mother returned and found them playing instead of making their contribution to the household economy, Okka von der Damerau’s voice was full of the weariness of daily struggle and sent the children out – as much for peace, one suspects. Her mood was not (initially) improved by the return of her husband, but Tomasz Koniecczkny was full of irrepressible cheer. His reaction, when he heard that the children were out at night in the wood, was excellent, particularly his description of the witches.

In the wood, the children’s glee was evident as they played but we heard the evening darkening and their sudden fear. Just as the panic was rising in their voices, the sweetness of Emily Birsen’s Sandman calmed them. The simplicity of the "Evening Prayer" showcased how well Wilde and DeShong were matched, with the harmonies very clear. At the end of the act, conductor Andrew Davies held the silence and, amazingly, no-one clapped and broke it.

Wakened by Birsen’s Dew Fairy, Wilde and DeShong were now getting over-excited by the house made of sweets. The show was about to be stolen, however, by the Witch, slim and sinuous Thomas Blondelle, with a very expressive face. His singing seemed to savour the words, particularly in his "Hocus pocus" song, immobilising the children. There was a nice bit of byplay when he tried to immobilise Davies – and failed.

Gretel’s courage and resourcefulness stood up to the Witch and he came to a Bad End, which released the children of the National Youth Choir of Scotland Girl’s Choir as well as Hansel. The girls sang beautifully, well-drilled as ever by Christopher Bell. Finally, the parents arrived, having been out searching and thanks were given to God. In the general rejoicing at the end, did I hear an echo (or, rather, precursor) of ‘the witch is dead’ from the Wizard of Oz?

The RSNO were on grand form for Davies, and the cuckoo-player in the percussion section deserves a special mention, as does the balance between orchestra and singers.

Text © Catriona Graham
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