Hänsel und Gretel

Conductor Robin Ticciati demonstrates an impressive command of structure,
both large-scale expanses and smaller musico-dramatic forms. The tempi are
well-judged and the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra are
unfailingly responsive as Ticciati skilfully controls the ebb and flow:
accelerandi, subtle rubati and dynamic swells and falls are
crafted so that they feel a natural element of the story-telling. The rich
reedy opening of the overture establishes a calm sleepiness, the strings
comfortingly gentle, the horns and woodwind to the fore, before a snappy
pizzicato triggers a spark of vigour. Ticciati ranges fluently through
the thematic material, each new melody or motif imbued with dramatic character.
The textures are lucid, despite the sometimes dense instrumentation; indeed the
balance within the orchestra, and between stage and pit is consistently good.
Melodies soar freely and harmonies are opulent, but things never become
sentimentally turgid. Ticciati misses no opportunity to remind us — a
snarling horn, a biting pizzicato, an ominous tonal tint — of the
bitter taste beneath the sugar coating.

The ‘Witch’s Ride’ is well-crafted: astute accents, driving repetitive
rhythms, incisive string playing and the final eerily spiralling cello solo
leave us in no doubt of the give us a foretaste of the ghastliness which the
children may face in the wood. In the ‘Dream Pantomime’, in which fourteen
shimmering angels arrange themselves in a shimmering tableau around the
sleeping children, Ticciati crisply shapes the orchestral dialogues, as the
mood and pace shift and sway. A fine horn fanfare is a warm springboard for the
Act 3 Prelude, in which the motoring string textures are never pounding, always

The cast is uniformly superb, but it is the eponymous siblings who shine
most brightly. From her first petulant outburst, wilfully interrupting
Gretel’s nursery song, Alice Coote totally embodies the spirit of the
impetuous and sassy, but lovable, Hansel. A gleeful cry of ‘Hurrah!’ as he
flourishes a bursting basket of strawberries that will earn his mother’s
praise, is refreshingly spontaneous; but the mischief-maker’s proud
confidence fades with his reluctant, and touchingly forlorn, admission that
‘Gretel, I’ve forgotten the way’. This Hansel can certainly make a
raucous din! ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo!’ he shrieks, when awoken prematurely by
his sister’s lark-like, virtuosic trilling. Coote’s fiercely defiant
rejoinder, ‘I’ll not go with you, you old hag’, as the Witch tries to
entice the children into her sugar-drop abode, assures us of his vehement will.

Indeed, at times Coote dominates Lydia Teuscher’s
more moderate Gretel. However, Teuscher’s clean, even soprano illuminates
Gretel’s essential goodness, while also capturing her youthful freshness —
for example, her wild abandon at the thought of the scrumptious pudding soon to
be devoured when a jug of cream is discovered in the bare pantry. Teuscher
wonderfully conveys the young girl’s tender innocence as she gathers ripe
fruit in the forest; her folk-like duet with a smooth clarinet melody supported
by light pizzicato strings affirms her naive joy in the beauty and
abundance of the natural world. Waking from her dream, in Act 3, Gretel
questions, ‘Where am I? Am I awake of dreaming?’; Teuscher introduces a
marvellous note of wonder mixed with hesitation, as if young girl has not quite
shaken off the otherworldliness of her nocturnal meanderings.

And, the siblings’ voices blend mellifluously, whether they are stealing
the cream, dancing playfully, or stumbling across the cottage of their dreams
— all candies, bonbons, buns and chocolate. Coote and Teuscher entwine
artlessly and wondrously in the ‘Evening Prayer’, first in rich homophony
and then in dialogue, Gretel’s pure melody aloft supported by Hansel’s
chromatically sliding harmonies. Ticciati calls for a firm bass line but reins
in the horns and clarinets until the children have finally drifted into their
dreamland; the slightest hint of a rubato before the final extended
cadence is stirring.

As the children’s mother, Irmgard Vilsmaier is emphatic without being
pantomime-esque; her tone is full of character but gratifying; indeed her Act 1
aria is touching imbued with a convincing note of desperation in the face of
unalterable poverty, hungry children and a reckless husband. The boisterous
entry of the latter, sung by William Dazely, is prefaced by a crescendo-ing
‘Ral la la la’ refrain of ebullience, but Dazely does not offer a
one-dimensional performance, modifying his tone to one of urgency upon the
realisation that his children are missing. Sometimes the exuberance of the
drunken broom-maker is achieved at the expense of accuracy; a tremulous concern
when Dazely imagines his off-spring ‘wandering in the wood at night, with no
stars nor moon’ wavers somewhat dangerously. And, while conveying a fitting
anxiety and horror, he employs an overly wide vibrato at the top when
describing the Nibblewitch who lures children to their deaths-by-gingerbread.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Witch is a monster; her gambit, ‘My
name’s Rosina Sweet-tooth, the very friendliest of ladies’, is
squirm-makingly unctuous, but grovelling enticements and faux tenderness flare
inevitably unpredictably into raging threats and revelatory declarations of
evil intent. Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s obsequious summons, ‘Come, little mousy,
come into my housy’, may be alarmingly disingenuous but his evil laugh is
absolutely spine-chilling! The Witch’s ‘Spell’, punctuated by deadly
rasps from the brass, stabbing strings and a tolling timpani, is a masterpiece
of vocal acting.

Tara Erraught’s Sandman floats a lovely legato line, finding a glossy
allure as she promises the children that the stars will appear in ‘Heaven’s
furthest sphere and angels bring you dreams of sweet delight!’ As the Dew
Fairy, Ida Falk Winland exhibits a bright crispness but the voice is rather too
large, and the vibrato ever-present, for a wispy sprite of the dawn. The
children’s chorus achieve an appropriately sweet blend.

Claire Seymour

Recording details:

Engelbert Humperdinck: H‰nsel und Gretel . Alice Coote
(mezzo soprano) — Hansel; Lydia Teuscher (soprano) — Gretel; Irmgard
Vilsmaier (soprano) — Mother; William Dazeley (baritone) — Father; Wolfgang
Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor) — Witch; Tara Erraught (mezzo soprano) —
Sandman; Ida Falk Winland (soprano) — Dew Fairy; London Philharmonic
Orchestra; conductor, Robin Ticciati. Glyndebourne Festival Opera. GFOCD
015-10, 2 CD set (58:37, 41:57), full German text with English and French
translations, liner notes, colour production photographs.

product_title=Engelbert Humperdinck: H‰nsel und Gretel
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=GFOCD 015-10 [2CDs]