Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel was first performed in Weimar in 1893. His sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto based on the fairy-tale by the Brothers Grimm, Jacob Ludwig and Wilhelm Carl. It’s one of two fairytale operas being performed at this year’s International Festival, with Rossini’s La Cenerentola, being shown at the Festival Theatre from Fri 24 – Sun 26 Aug, another Grimm fairy-tale.
This concert performance opens with light, playful music from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, expertly conducted by the renowned Andrew Davis. The music creates a youthful, joyous mood before the innocent Hansel and Gretel take to the stage. However, the deeper tones of the brass section create a sense of foreboding and the audience knows that danger lurks within this tale. Gretel’s part is beautifully sung by Laura Wilde, soprano, and Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo soprano, plays her brother, Hansel.
This may be a fairytale but these children are far from care-free as the family is starving. Their Mother, Okka von der Damerau, mezzo soprano, portrays her stress and is the one who, unwittingly sends them into the hands of the Nibble-witch as they carry out their task to collect strawberries within the dangerous wood. The Witch, although played by Thomas Blondelle, tenor, is actually a female character in the story. He is much more animated than the other characters and his performance livens the quietly attentive audience. She enters the stage adorned with witch’s hat and magic wand and lures the children into her gingerbread house. The audience takes pleasure in Blondelle’s acting, especially when her witch’s wand seems to have broken as she tries to cast her spell on the conductor.
The audience does wonder how magical a production with full costumes and set would be but this concert performance does work and it compensates with the benefit of seeing the orchestra play. The National Youth Choir of Scotland National Girls’ Choir, with Christopher Bell as chorus director, makes an excellent addition as the angels. Sadly, the angels are the dead children who did not escape the clutches of the Witch, who turned them into gingerbread men and ate them.
It is easy to see how this tale is usually performed at Christmas time. Food dominates throughout as the family struggles; the children, particularly Hansel, are always hungry and the Witch is obsessed by her over-indulgence while using food to lure the children into her lair. Thankfully, she dies in her own oven, being turned into a baked cake and the family is reunited. This performance in an almost-full Usher Hall makes for a delightful evening of beautiful music and the re-telling of an old tale which has many relevant themes today.