Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Cast B)

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 13 December 20083.5stars

The Witch and Hansel (Bill Cooper)

I could not praise Hansel (Alice Coote) and Gretel (Camilla Tilling) more than admitting that, in spite of being of a certain age, most of the time during the performance I forgot that I was watching two adult singers and not two children. I hasten to add that both singers delivered musically as well as vocally faultless performances. They were ideally cast and – within some confinement of the production – they made the most of their roles.

I would have preferred a larger space for the first act rather than the small, pretty picture-book-like room. Arguably music’s main ingredients are song and dance. Humperdinck’s score is an eminent example of this dictum yet directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier did not include any dancing even when the words of the libretto specified such action. When Gretel teaches Hansel how to dance, both the music and the words indicate a lot more movement than Leiser and Caurier facilitated. Nevertheless, Alice Coote and Camilla Tilling managed to portray the joy of dancing convincingly.

For me the third vocal triumph of the evening was that of Irmgard Vilsmaier in the role of Gertrud, the mother. Her singing, strong and glorious, reminded one of Humperdinck’s Wagner connection and of great Wagnerian singers (of whom she is surely one).

The Leiser-Caurier concept of the Witch did not help Ann Murray in the role. Her delivery of any operatic part is never less than perfect, but what do you do with a presumably sexually frustrated (and bosom-showing), physically agile yet Zimmer-frame using serial killer? The Witch (Bill Cooper)Murray too was deprived of her dance number – that is the broom gallop – although her stage presence was still formidable.

I am not sure why the Sandman (Eri Nakamura) had to sing from deep in the stage although, as per her words, she was meant to be putting sand into the children’s eyes (who were near the front of the stage). It is very hard to keep in contact with conductor and orchestra from such distance, especially as this aria is the singer’s first (and only) appearance in the opera.

The gingerbread children - Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Tiffin Children’s Chorus - sang with purity of vocal tone and intonation. They did not get to dance around in the final celebration (even though here too the words specify singing and dancing) but they were truly angelic (until they started to feast on the gingerbread Witch). This is just as well because we were cheated out of a few Angels in the prayer scene: as per the vocal text, there should be fourteen Angels watching over Hansel and Gretel but we had no more than about ten.

The final scene (Bill Cooper)Conductor Robin Ticciati, still in his early twenties, made his Royal Opera House debut this evening. Much celebrated and showered with plum jobs in spite of his youth, Ticciati clearly has charm and drive as well as feeling for the lyrical, for sound colour and for motivic shapes. But, on the strength of this performance, his rhythm is not as strong as his lyricism and with his very expressive left hand movements he tends to indicate the obvious rather than to direct tricky orchestral and vocal entries. Luckily, Ticciati has some sixty years ahead of him to perfect the art of conducting.

Surprisingly for a school night, there were great many children in the audience. They appeared to enjoy the performance, as did the rest of the audience. The atmosphere in the auditorium was festive and surely it will continue to be so during the forthcoming performances.

By Agnes Kory

Radio 3 will be broadcasting Hansel and Gretel LIVE on Tuesday 16 December and BBC TWO is televising it on Christmas Day at 3pm.

It will also be relayed live into nearly 50 digital cinemas across the UK on Tuesday 16 December.

Read our interview with Sir Colin Davis about this production here.

Photo credits: Bill Cooper