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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Hansel and Gretel

The Metropolitan Opera revives a nightmare before Christmas.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Appetizer for destruction: Robert Brubaker returns as the Witch in the Met's
revival of Hansel and Gretel. Photo by Marty Sohl © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
When I was growing up, the Met's production of Hansel and Gretel (by Otto Schenk) was something to see, with a gorgeous gingerbread house, imaginative animal costumes, and a dream ballet featuring realistic-looking angels that brought tears to the eyes of the most jaded adult. For decades, Engelbert Humperdinck's fairy-tale opera stood as a stalwart family favorite at the Metropolitan Opera House, as traditional as the massive tree that adorns the Grand Tier promenade in December.

In 2009, Met general manager Peter Gelb imported this staging rom the Welsh National Opera, directed by Richard Jones. The kids are now neglected latchkey children living in a gray tenement. The angels in the dream ballet have become obese cooks, accompanied by a fish-headed waiter. The Witch's Cottage is no longer a charming  gingerbread house, but a red hell-mouth leading to a giant industrial kitchen circa World War II. The Witch is sung by a tenor in drag.

Humperdinck was a sophisticated composer who worked as an assistant to Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. His subject may be childish, but the music is not. The famous overture, the Witch's ride and the "dream ballet" present challenges to any conductor. The second act, dominated by the Witch, is simpler but ends with a spectacular choral ensemble as the gingerbread children revert to human form.

This year's revival (marketed as a "Special Holiday Presentation") features  Christine Rice and Christine Schäfer as the hungry siblings.
Tenor Robert Brubaker, (known for his interpretation of difficult opera characters) returns as the Witch and fires up the cook-stove. Sir Andrew Davis conducts. Presented in English.

Recording Recommendations:

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1953)
Hansel: Elisabeth Grummer
Gretel: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
The Witch: Else Schurhoff
One of the classic early mono recordings that the young von Karajan made for Walter Legge, this is a benchmark reading of Humperdinck's score. The remastered Great Recordings of the 20th Century version sparkles.

Munich Philharmonic cond. Kurt Eichorn (RCA, 1971)
Hansel: Anna Moffo
Gretel: Helen Donath
The Witch: Christa Ludwig
This is a brilliantly conducted, solidly cast version of the opera with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau taking the important role of the Father. Good stereo sound. It might be hard to find because of the RCA/Sony/BMG merger but it's worth tracking down. And like the best recordings of this German opera, it's performed in that language.

Tickets for Hansel and Gretel are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.