Hunger and starvation is increasing everyday

The Royal Opera House’s 2008 production of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel makes no concessions to the idea that this is a sort of operatic Nutcracker to be staged for the kiddies at Christmas. Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s production is firmly in the grim, and Grimm, tradition of central European folk tales and it’s sung in German.

For Act 1, designer Christian Fernouillet has created a claustrophobic bedroom with surfaces at odd angles in which the children (Angelika Kirschlager and Diana Damrau) play out their hunger displacement games until their angry mother (Elizabeth Connell) sends them off to forest to gather berries. The father (Thomas Allen) returns with food and this relief from hunger is played out in a scene heavy with sexual innuendo between mother and father. It’s quite creepy. Finally they realise that the children are missing and set off in search.

Act 2 starts in a classic fairy tale forest which rapidly darkens into a place of real menace. The sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza) is a strange distorted creature who puts the children to sleep. In the dream sequence the fourteen guardian angels, with animal heads, carry in a bunch of furniture, including a fireplace, to create a fireside scene of bourgeois domesticity. Two of the animal angels reveal themselves as the mother and father and give the children gifts. Inside each elaborate package is a single sandwich which is devoured with rapt concentration.

Act 3 opens with the Dew Fairy, here a pink confection played by Anita Watson, waking the children. The witch (Anja Silja), a vicious looking old woman with comedy breasts and a Zimmer frame, leaves a miniature gingerbread house for the children to explore. This transforms to the full size version with dead children hanging in a glass fronted cupboard and industrial scale ovens for the witch’s child based confectionery experiments. There is no concession whatever to comedy. The witch is scary as all hell and the scene in which she is shoved in the oven involves some serious pyrotechnics. The conventional happy ending descends into an orgy of face stuffing as the revived children fall on the cake/corpse of the witch. The production is consistent in its essential seriousness and is supported by fine acting across the board. In line with the concept nobody camps up their part. It’s all in earnest.

Musically it’s a really strong performance. Both Kirschlager and Damrau are quite excellent and work really well together. Kirschlager has quite a rich tone which blends nicely with Damrau’s cleaner sound. Thomas Allen is also really good. He’s quite chilling in the Hexenritt for example. Anja Silja’s Witch is a tour de force. She is every inch the witch/hag of nightmares without descending into cheap vocal trickery. Matshikiza sings very sweetly. Connell and Watson are quite good too but didn’t really register strongly with me. Colin Davis gets a suitably Wagnerian sound out of the orchestra and seems to balance drama and beauty very nicely. He’s well supported by the ROH orchestra, especially the brass and woodwinds, and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Children’s Chorus. The sheer beauty of the piece really comes out in the finale with Erlöst, befreit, für alle Zeit which manages to be gorgeous while avoiding dipping into excessive sentimentality.

The video direction of Sue Judd is good. She isn’t fixated with close ups though, since this isn’t a terribly busy production, she brings the camera in when there’s not much else to watch. There aren’t any gimmicks and it’s a good approximation to how one would watch from a decent seat which is what video directors ought to give us. The sound and picture quality are very good. It was shot in 1080i and the DVD picture is generally crisp and clear. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is absolutely first class; vivid and with spatial depth and everything clearly located. This is also available on Blu-ray.  Audio choices there are LPCM 2.0 and 5.1. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. There’s a useful “Making of” documentary, an interview with Colin Davis plus cast and synopsis material on the disks. The package includes an unusually lavish tri-lingual leaflet.

ETA 23 May 2019: I have now had a look at the Blu-ray.  It is, as expected, even better from an AV point of view.  The LPCM 5.1 sound track is especially good with real depth and sense of spaciousness.  The stereo is not bad either but switching it to it from surround the reduction in the width and depth of the sound field is tangible.  Also note that at time of writing this recording is available as part of a three disk set called Fairytale Operas that also contains the Glyndebourne Cunning Little Vixen and Jonathan Dove’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.

I hesitate to compare this Hansel und Gretel with the roughly contemporary Metropolitan Opera version. They are very different but both worthwhile in their own way.

Four decades of Peter Grimes

Having now had a chance to watch and review all five currently available video recordings of Peter Grimes I thought I might do a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each. All of them have some merit and I doubt that there would be consensus on a “winner”. Anyway, here goes…

BBC film 1969
Grimes – Peter Pears
Conductor – Benjamin Britten
Director – Joan Cross & Brian Large

This is an essential historical document with both composer and the creator of the role involved. The production is straightforward and naturalistic. The sound and video quality is surprisingly good for the period. It does, though, leave one with the feeling that there is more to the role of Grimes than Pears finds.

Royal Opera House 1981
Grimes – Jon Vickers
Conductor – Colin Davis
Director – Elijah Moshinsky

Also a historical landmark being the first major production where Grimes wasn’t sung by Peter Pears. It has the excellent Heather Harper as Ellen Orford. The production is quite dull and very dimly lit. Vickers’ Grimes is controversial. In places he sounds fantastic and in others sorely taxed. His acting is oddly stilted. Norman Bailey fails to convince as Balstrode.  Sound and picture quality are OK.

English National Opera 1994
Grimes – Philip Langridge
Conductor – David Atherton
Director – Tim Albery

This is the production with most sense of the sea as a character brought out through innovative use of video projection. Langridge’s Grimes is intense, convincing and beautifully sung. Alan Opie is a very strong Balstrode. Unfortunately the orchestra and chorus aren’t up to rival versions and all aspects of the DVD; video direction, sound quality and picture quality are rather poor.

Opernhaus Zürich 2005
Grimes – Christopher Ventris
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Director – David Pountney

This is a very fine and thought provoking production with any number of magical moments. Ventris is a first class Grimes combining power and sensitivity and the supporting performances all have merit, save perhaps for Alfred Muff’s sub-par Balstrode. The orchestra and chorus are quite superb. The performance gets a thoroughly sympathetic treatment on DVD with good video directing backed up by quite excellent sound and picture quality.

Metropolitan Opera 2008
Grimes – Anthony Dean Griffey
Conductor – Donald Runnicles
Director – John Doyle

This is a rather dull and dark production given a very eccentric treatment by the video director. Dean Griffey is a lyrical and sympathetic Grimes well backed up by the supporting cast, especially Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes as Ned Keene. The orchestra and chorus are excellent and Runnicles is fairly convincing though the first act drags a bit. The sound and picture quality is excellent.

La Scala, 2012
2.theboarGrimes: John Graham-Hall
Conductor: Robin Ticciati
Director: Richard Jones

Richard Jones’ production, updated to the 1980s, is quirky. John Graham-Hall is quite lyrical as Grimes but slips into pseudo speech a lot. Susan Gritton fails to convince as Ellen Orford. The supporting cast, the orchestra and the conducting are first rate but the chorus is decidedly sub-par. The Blu-ray sound and picture outclasses all previous versions but, overall, this recording fails to convince.

Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, 2013
1.prologueGrimes: Allan Oke
Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Director: Tim Albery/Margaret Williams

This film is a record of the unique production staged on Aldeburgh beach by Tim Albery and filmed by Margaret Williams. It’s highly atmospheric and features a brilliant performance by Alan Oke but conditions were not ideal for the singers and musically this cannot match the best available recordings from the theatre.