Ding, dong! The Witch is Dead ...
Humperdinck's opera 'Hansel and Gretel' in Cleveland,
enjoyed by KELLY FERJUTZ
Engelbert Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel is absolutely a classic. It is wonderfully simplistic and awesomely complex, all at the same time. Based on a fairy tale by the Grimm brothers, to music that could have written by Wagner, it easily transports the listener to 'once-upon-a-time-land' where magic is the order of the day.
To be sure, the two leading characters are children, but the roles are entirely too demanding to be sung by a child. It's somehow appropriate to realize that this wondrous musical tale about a brother and sister was actually composed by a brother and sister. Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote poetic variations on the Grimm tale for her children's enjoyment, and asked her brother to set them to music. He did, and this was the beginning of it all. A few years later, he decided to make a full-fledged opera out of this creation. The poems needed some revision, in order to become a libretto, and he secured the assistance of his fiancée, Hedwig Taxer, for this task.
This weekend at Severance Hall in Cleveland, USA, music director Franz Welser-Möst leads the Cleveland Orchestra in concert performances of this seasonal favorite. Internationally-renowned singers joined in the festivities. Mezzo Susanne Mentzer of the US was a marvelously boyish Hansel, while Swedish soprano Malin Hartelius charmed as Gretel. Håken Hagegård, baritone from Sweden was the mostly happy father, Peter, while the US soprano, Denise Knowlton sang the mostly stern mother, Gertrud. German tenor Volker Vogel was a wonderfully wicked Witch, and the petite French-Algerian soprano Malia Bendi Merad was delightful in both her roles: the Sandman and the Dew Fairy.
The nature of Hansel and Gretel is almost conversational; there are hardly any 'name' arias, and the most familiar music is orchestral in nature. In a recent interview, Mr Welser-Möst explained why he programmed this concert performance of the opera. 'I always had this idea; it's such a wonderful, beautiful, romantic score, and I always wanted to hear The Cleveland Orchestra perform this great music ... Once in a while, I think, we should become a child again, and this is one of the opportunities to do so.'
This performance did not utilize the custom-built platform above the orchestra as in past years (my only quibble); instead the singers were located immediately in front of the orchestra and Mr Welser-Möst, entering or leaving the stage from either side, according to their required presence.
Susanne Mentzer (left) as Hansel and Malin Hartelius (right) as Gretel perform 'Hansel and Gretel' with Music Director Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra. Photo © 2004 Roger Mastroianni
Ms Mentzer and Ms Hartelius were more or less in costume, and interacted charmingly together; laughing, holding hands, pinching each other. Typical behavior for a young brother and sister! Their voices blended well, while remaining individually distinct, and strong enough to carry over the large orchestra. (Humperdinck was a disciple of Wagner, after all, which is partially why The Witches Ride is so reminiscent of the Ride of the Valkyries, among other similarities.)
Mr Hagegård seemed almost too happy to be so hungry, but then he'd had a great day at the local market, selling all his brooms. Once he realized the children were off in the woods, he was properly apprehensive, encouraging his wife to join him in going after them.
Copyright © 4 December 2004
Kelly Ferjutz, Cleveland USA