I don’t usually talk much about favourites but if I were to compile a list of my top 100 favourite operas, German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel would be somewhere in the broad mix. The effervescent melodies and folk tunes, evocative musical landscapes and darker interjections that characterise Humperdinck’s three-act work, loosely based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, tell the story with immeasurable appeal. It premiered in Weimar on December 23, 1893, under the baton of Richard Strauss no less, and was an instant success. Often staged in the holiday seasons at Christmas time, it remains one of the great joys of opera.
Even without a cottage in the woods and a witch’s mouth-watering gingerbread house, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra took to the stage on Thursday night as a formidable musical force, engaging the imagination with vivid storytelling. Under the direction of outgoing Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis, they were the stars of the night.
From its opening, with the plaintive brass notes that give way to warm strings resonating like wind in the trees, the overture moved forward with inspired handling. It signalled what was to come as Davis emphasised the romantic score’s emotionalism while taking great care not to overegg its dramatic component. Part of the score’s dramatic workings come from Humperdinck’s synthesis of Wagnerian techniques, notably the use of leitmotifs, and every time they reappeared, their confidently delivered form resonated. If you are familiar with Wagner’s Fafner and Fasolt, you would swear they were lurking in the witch’s dark forest.
Laura Wilde. Photo © Gillian Riesen
Sung in German with English surtitles, they were joined by Americans mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Hansel and soprano Laura Wilde as Gretel. The pair may not have been matched in height but these two expressive and pleasantly contrasting singers showed it wasn’t going to be an entirely static affair.
Dainty but direct and sensible, with a skip to her Gretel, Wilde brought ample brightness and feeling to her lines, though there was an occasional loss of clarity in the lower reaches of the voice. The unhurried and free-flowing nature Wilde brought to There Stands a Little Man charmed immensely and the beauty she could gather in the voice, turning it into powerful intent, was on splendid show as she woke up Hansel with some tickling.
DeShong’s Hansel was a little more moody and much more the scallywag. Singing with rich fruity assortment and sturdy support, DeShong delved deep and chartered high with a fullness in sound that resonated impressively. When it came to having to spend the night in the forest, DeShong could just as easily shine in the softest of territory. Together with Wilde, their Evening Prayer became a pearl encrusted gossamer veil in one of the most heavenly renditions possible. Davis underlined it sensitively, the silken strings leading magnificently to the Dream Sequence in a musical journey of adventure and tension that closed Act 2 before interval.
Returning home with a bagful of food to feed his impoverished family, James Clayton was commanding as the Father. He arrived muscularly voiced with a swagger in delivery, comically revealing that Humperdinck’s librettist and sister, Adelheid Wette, surely never wrote “Stone the crows. It’s Vegemite” into the libretto. With his towering oaky bass, Clayton was especially primed as he gave a gripping account of the witches on their broomsticks in the forest, cutting through the orchestra with a fearful blade of sound.
As the Mother, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell wielded her mothering skills with an iron fist and it reflected in her steely mezzo-soprano but, sadly, the bulkiness of the music felt lost. As the Witch, you expected a performance with panache when Brisbane-born Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu showed up in Act 3 blonde-wigged and gaudily shimmering in drag. It was a hoot. Nonetheless, the wig had difficulty staying on and Lehtipuu’s mostly wiry delivery left the Witch lacking convincing menace. As both the Dew Fairy and Sandman, Stacey Alleaume was a jewel-like sparkle, her soprano clear and penetrating from the left choir stalls as she looked down on the siblings. The combined National Boys Choir of Australia and Australian Girls Choir, singing from the rear as children liberated from a gingerbread life, were in angelic unison.
The orchestra maintained an excellent level of playing, the brass polished and balanced, the percussion distinctive and the woodwinds slithering through with flights of vitality while the reinforced strings were superbly meshed. It seemed odd and ill-conceived, however, presenting such a delicious delight without some form of semi-staged effort. As a fairy-tale most children will learn about, it was a shame no provision was made for their enjoyment.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Hansel and Gretel in concert has one more performance on November 30