Englebert Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel — BBC Prom 61

This year, Laurent Pelly’s 2008 staging of
Humperdinck’s fairy-tale favourite, Hansel and Gretel, with its
economical, ‘recession-savvy’ sets — brown cardboard boxes ‡
la homeless-city, floor-mop trees, litter-strewn landscape and flimsy paper
ovens — proved a timely and fitting choice for the restricted stage space
and theatrical basics available at the Royal Albert Hall. The absence of
luxurious stage designs and copious props was certainly not a hindrance to
StÈphane Marlot’s clever adaptation for the Royal Albert Hall, which
hinted at fantasy and enchantment but left it to the audience’s
imagination to fill in the ambiguous gaps — which is just as it should be
in fairyland.

After a long Glyndebourne run, which began in July, the cast were confident
and at ease; interestingly, performances that might have lacked freshness were
given a boost of spontaneity by the unfamiliar locale, none more so that the
arrival William Dazely’s Father, surreptitiously signalled by a
speculative glance to the back of the Arena by conductor, Robin Ticciati. A
boisterous Dazely, clutching two bursting supermarket-bags, raucously
negotiated his way through a crowded, surprised Proms Arena, lurching and
launching himself over successive barriers to climb up to the stage — the
cymbal player serving as a useful bag carrier as the final hoist was

As his wife, Imgard Vilsmaier was rather less rough and ready. Vilsmaier has
a big Wagnerian voice — booming the Mother’s frustration and
despair to the rafters of the Gallery — but it is a pleasant-toned
instrument, one which she modulated skilfully in her Act 1 aria to convey her
maternal distress and despair.

But it is eponymous siblings who dominate the opera, and this production
presented a superlative pairing. Alice Coote, enacted an astonishing
metamorphosis to petulant, prepubescent mischief-maker — a touch of
attention deficit disorder, perhaps? Coote was exhaustingly hyperactive, even
managing to make disappearing into a cardboard box appear interesting and
amusing. Her glorious tone was consistently projected with clarity and warmth –
one cannot imagine a better Hansel, or a mezzo-soprano who enjoys the role
more. Lydia Teuscher, as Gretel, held her own admirably with such a seasoned
partner. Possessing a crisp, clear soprano, she twisted and twirled engagingly
with her impish brother, their voices entwining with breathtaking beauty in the
Evening Prayer.

Attired in a fluorescent pink two-piece suit and bouffant wig, Wolfgang
Ablinger-Sperrhacke was an eye-watering picture of consumerist and gastronomic
greed as the Witch. His ‘Shirley-Bassey’ strutting, brazenly
clutching an upturned mop — microphone or broomstick? — raised
uncomfortable hackles, and anticipated the exposure of his chilling intent when
he whipped off the wig and revealed the sinisterly bare-headed, pot-bellied,
knife-wielding monster beneath the deceptively frivolous drag-queen apparel.

H&G_Glyndebourne_017.gifWolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Witch

In the absence of the full trappings of the opera house, it was essentially
left to the lighting scheme to successfully evoke location and ambience. The
panels encircling the raised platform variously shone ice-blue, for the
loveless, foodless family home; blared gothic red for the slaughter-house
kitchen; twinkled luminous silver for the moonlit forest; and gleamed verdant
green for the final familial reunion. Despite these resourceful effects, it
remained somewhat difficult for the minor roles to establish their character
effectively, in such a large arena, although the performances of both Tara
Erraught, as the Sandman, and Ida Falk Winland’s Dew-Fairy captured the
ambiguous bitter-sweet mood of this production.

The children’s chorus, no doubt well-drilled for Glyndebourne, sang
sweetly but looked a little unsure and slightly stilted as they moved around
the confines of the stage platform. The Dream Pantomime is a clever concept
though: Pelly presents a pristine parade of white-frocked, well-fed children,
gorging on Big Macs while a hungry Hansel and Gretel can only dream of
gluttonous gastronomy — an ‘angelic host’ which leaves the
children nothing but discarded wrappers and empty bellies. As one critic has
put it, this is a sharp metaphor for the ‘haves and have-nots’, a
pertinent message which Pelly presumably hoped would not be lost on the
affluent Glyndebourne clientele.

H&G_Glyndebourne_018.gifLydia Teuscher as Gretel and Alice Coote as H‰nsel

Conductor Robin Ticciati, danced light-footedly on the podium before an
engaging and committed London Philharmonic Orchestra. Ticciati proved himself a
master of rhythmic flexibility, skilfully controlling pace to expose the
juxtapositions of sweet joy and melancholy deprivation, energetic optimism and
despondent resignation, which characterise the score. The orchestra provided
the tints and shades of the rich colour palette which was missing visually;
their energetic playing never tipped into Wagnerian weightiness, as Ticciati
conjured both the effervescence of the children’s escapade and the
satisfyingly soporific moments of rest.

There were no sub- or sur-titles for this performance; thus the audience
were prompted out of an habitual ‘laziness’, forced to listen
closely to the sung text, or attentively follow the libretto provided in the
programme, or to rely on their familiarity with this well-known tale. There
were no complaints, and no difficulties, as far as I could tell; we simply
rediscovered our ability to be responsive to what was presented to our eyes and
ears, an effort which audiences should be pushed to make more frequently

As the fairy-story reached its equivocal ‘happy ever after’,
Ticciati’s baton drew ravishing warmth from his players. Pelly’s
reading of this Grimm tale may be ironic and more than a little shadowy, but
the darkness on this occasion was buried beneath the orchestral light and

Claire Seymour

image_description=Lydia Teuscher as Gretel [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival 2010]
product_title=Englebert Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel
product_by=Hansel: Alice Coote; Gretel: Lydia Teuscher; Mother: Irmgard Vilsmaier; Father: William Dazeley; Sandman: Tara Erraught; Dew Fairy: Ida Falk Winland; Witch: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Conductor: Robin Ticciati. Glyndebourne Chorus. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Directed at Glyndebourne (2008) by Laurent Pelly. Revised and semi-staged for the BBC Proms (2010) by StÈphane Marlot. Royal Albert Hall, London, 31 August 2010.
product_id=Above: Lydia Teuscher as Gretel

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival 2010 from the Glyndebourne Festival’s production