25 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Engelbert Humperdinck – HÄNSEL UND GRETEL (S. Shigeshima, E. Wimmer, U. Schenker-Primus, R. Teem, A. Günther, C. Maier, H. Park; MDG 909 1837-6)

Engelbert Humperdinck - HÄNSEL UND GRETEL (MDG 909 1837-6)

ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK (1854 – 1921): Hänsel und Gretel—S. Shigeshima (Hänsel), E. Wimmer (Gretel), U. Schenker-Primus (Peter), R. Teem (Gertrud), A. Günther (Die Knusperhexe), C. Maier (Sandmännchen), H. Park (Taumännchen); schola cantorum weimar, Damen des Opernchores des Deutschen Nationaltheaters Weimar; Staatskapelle Weimar; Martin Hoff [Recorded in the Deutschen Nationaltheater, Weimar, Germany, on 2 – 4 May and 10 – 12 September 2013; MDG 909 1837-6; 2CD, 98:22; Available from Amazon (Germany), HB Direct, and major music retailers]

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is an opera that, as a work of art of lasting merit, is undermined by its own popularity. Dismissed by many audiences, critics, and musicians as an insipid entertainment for children, an analytical look at the score reveals a masterful work, crafted with obvious musical genius and instinct for the stage. Premièred in Weimar in 1893, when it was conducted by Richard Strauss, Hänsel und Gretel quickly conquered the world: its 1894 Hamburg première was led by Gustav Mahler, and the opera’s first performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1905, at which the composer was present and in which the Knusperhexe was sung by the remarkable Louise Homer, was a success that surprised both the MET and the New York press. This new recording from Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, expectedly benefiting from the sonic brilliance for which the label is acclaimed, returns Hänsel und Gretel to its Weimar roots, and though the performance features an international cast its greatest strength is the inherent legitimacy of the approach to the score adopted by its ‘hometown’ forces. Humperdinck was an earnest disciple of Wagner, of course, and Hänsel und Gretel owes much to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tannhäuser, and even Tristan und Isolde, and this stylistic kinship surely was not lost on the young Strauss, who at the time of the première of Hänsel und Gretel was hard at work on his first opera, Guntram, which was first performed in Weimar in 1894. There are also details in Hänsel und Gretel that would stay in Strauss’s mind as his great future masterpieces took shape, not least the mysterious trills that elevate the tension in Salome and the otherworldly two-note figurations that symbolize the Stimme des Falken in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Hänsel und Gretel is far more than a vapid homage to Wagner or a training ground for Strauss, however: in its most inspired passages, it is a paean to lost innocence, a celebration of the dignity of family values and faith, and a treatise on the independence of virtue from a man’s bank balance. Musically, though the idiom is lushly Romantic, Humperdinck’s score makes it clear that from the summit of Wagner’s Green Hill the Twentieth Century could be seen close on the horizon. This new recording provides equally cloudless vistas of Humperdinck’s talent and the unabashedly sentimental beauties of Hänsel und Gretel.

Musicians and conductors who regard Hänsel und Gretel as a simplistic children’s opera may well be taken short by the score’s difficulties. In this performance, the consistently high level of accomplishment by the choristers is superb, with the singing by the ladies of the Opernchores des Deutschen Nationaltheaters Weimar, directed by Markus Oppeneiger, making a strong impression. Prepared by Cordula Fischer, the singing of the children of schola cantorum weimar is both musically impeccable and wonderfully moving. The voicing of the echoes in the forest in the first scene of Act Two is perfectly light but menacing, and the youths’ singing in the opera’s penultimate scene—that in which, in what can be one of the most profoundly touching episodes in opera, the Knusperhexe’s spell is broken and the bewitched gingerbread children are restored to human form—is convincingly juvenile without musicality ever being compromised. This union of childlike wonder with mature musical standards is precisely what Humperdinck’s music requires, and the Weimar choral forces succeed in supplying it. Their efforts are complemented by the powerful playing of the Staatskapelle Weimar. Despite many gossamer effects in the Traumpantomime and throughout the score, Humperdinck’s orchestration is Wagnerian in scale, and the Staatskapelle Weimar players give of their best in passages that demand displays of orchestral color en masse. Their playing of subdued scenes is no less effective, and their accounts of the opera’s famous orchestral showpieces—the Vorspiel, Hexenritt, Traumpantomime, and Knusperwalzer—are rousing, with especially fine playing from the horns providing a sturdy foundation for the performance as a whole. Martin Hoff’s mastery of Humperdinck’s score is evident throughout the performance, and his conducting reveals the full extent of the composer’s wit and musical sophistication, particularly in passages which other conductors are content to allow to dissolve into syrupy banality.

The otherworldly characters are all entrusted in this recording to capable singers. The Taumännchen of South Korean soprano Hyunjin Park is a sparkling creation, her singing of ‘Der kleine Taumann heiss’ ich’ assured and radiantly lovely, befitting a companion of dawn. She is the ideal foil for the Sandmännchen of German soprano Caterina Maier, who brings benevolent fun and bright tone to her performance of ‘Der kleine Sandmann bin ich, st.’ Though the rôle was composed for and first performed by a mezzo-soprano, the effect of whose top B♭ at the end of her broomstick ‘gallop’ can be exhilarating, there is a long-standing German tradition of casting male singers as the Knusperhexe, a tradition honored in the much-lauded Richard Jones production created for Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago by which many 21st-Century audiences have been introduced to the opera. On records, too, the tradition is charmingly embodied by an unexpectedly vivid performance of the part by tenor Peter Schreier. In this recording, the Gingerbread Witch’s apron is donned by baritone Alexander Günther, a singer more likely to be encountered in opera houses in the ‘big sing’ baritone rôles of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. His falsetto singing can be grating, but when Mr. Günther allows his natural baritone to come through the effect is often formidable. Occasional unsteadiness on sustained tones undermines his efforts at making this Rosine Leckermaul atypically appealing, but his intelligence is apparent. Despite the novelty of having a baritone in the part, there are less caricature and annoying distortions than in many performances, and Mr. Günther whispers and roars his way through the music with charisma. Vocally, the highlight of his performance is the closing bars of the broomstick ride, where he summons his resources to challenge his female rivals in the rôle with an exciting top B♭ of his own.

One of the great mysteries in opera is why, when the 1812 story by the Gebrüder Grimm—greatly softened by Humperdinck and his librettist, Adelheid Wette (the composer’s sister)—leaves no doubt that Hänsel and Gretel are young children, productions of Hänsel und Gretel so often give the title tykes superannuated parents. Peter and Gertrud—so they are named in the libretto, though in the course of the opera they are only referred to, even in conversation with one another, as Vater and Mutter—are not substantial rôles by conventional standards and thus, in general, do not attract important singers at the heights of their powers, but surely they might as easily be cast with good singers at the beginnings of their careers as with those in their vocal twilight. This recording offers a fortifyingly secure-toned pair of parents. Peter, the down-on-his-luck broom-maker, is charmingly sung by German baritone Uwe Schenker-Primus. The good humor and beaming pride with which he returns to his family after an unusually successful day of peddling his wares is palpably conveyed, making the contrast of the terror that encroaches on his happiness when he discovers that his children have gone into the threatening forest all the more gripping. Joy returns upon his discovery of his unharmed children, and Mr. Schenker-Primus’s singing of the chorale-like ‘Merkt des Himmels Strafgericht’—the tessitura of which takes him twice to high F—beautifully provides the climax of the opera’s final scene. In the performance of American soprano Rebecca Teem, Gertrud is less of a harridan than she becomes in many performances. Taking up the mantle of sopranos with Wagnerian credentials like Rita Hunter and Hildegard Behrens who have proved the most persuasive Gertruds, Ms. Teem invests her performance with potent vocal amplitude. This Mutter scolds her children without ever seeming hateful, however, and her interactions with her husband are loving even when manic. Unlike many recorded Gertruds, Ms. Teem possesses a secure, ringing top B♭, which she detonates strappingly in Act One. Most significantly, this pair of singers make credible parents for young children: for once, Peter and Gertrud sound as though Hänsel and Gretel were not born in the infirmary of a retirement village.

Ironically, though, the parents and the supernaturals often sound younger than the recording’s Hänsel and Gretel. Japanese mezzo-soprano Sayaka Shigeshima is a forthright but unmistakably feminine Hänsel. To her credit, she endeavors to portray a young boy by maintaining a lean line rather than by employing calculatedly puerile mannerisms. The tessitura of Hänsel’s music holds no terrors for Ms. Shigeshima, her high G having an especially attractive gleam. The lower octave of Ms. Shigeshima’s voice occasionally sounds slightly hollow, most noticeably in passages in which the vocal line requires her to rapidly alternate between her upper and lower registers, but her intonation is generally sure. There is a boyish irascibility in Ms. Shigeshima’s Hänsel’s dealings with his mother, and he is prone to bullying Gretel. He trembles with fear in the forest, however, and his instinct to protect his sister is audibly engaged when they are confronted by the Knusperhexe. Ms. Shigeshima’s voice blends gracefully with Gretel’s in ‘Abends, will ich schlafen gehn,’ the famous Evening Prayer, and the muted cries of ‘Schwesterlein, hüt dich fein’ grow increasingly frenzied as danger mounts. The object of her concern is alluringly portrayed by Austrian soprano Elisabeth Wimmer, who is a more knowing Gretel than many. In the opera’s early scenes, this is a Gretel who sounds deflated by hunger and poverty, but she is audibly inspired to poetic wonder by the perils of the forest. Ms. Wimmer amusingly plays the fool when tricking the Knusperhexe into demonstrating proper use of the magic oven, but there is nothing foolish in her management of her voice. Like Ms. Shigeshima, Ms. Wimmer sounds youthful but not singularly girlish. Still, there is a disarming freshness in her singing. Ms. Wimmer’s top B♭ in ‘Juchhei!’ after the Knusperhexe’s death is jubilant, and her technique enables her to soar to the climactic top B in the final scene with freedom. If Ms. Shigeshima and Ms. Wimmer do not conjure an aural image of young children exuberantly disobeying their parents, the confidence and security of their singing proves most rewarding.

Many productions of Hänsel und Gretel are so concerned with lending Humperdinck’s opera modern sensibilities that they overlook the fact that the core values of the plot and its characters are timeless; and, more unforgiveably, they neglect the musical demands of the score. When an opera is sung well, no apologies need to be made for it, and MDG’s recording delivers a performance of Hänsel und Gretel that leaves no room for regrets. This recording is a beguiling ‘homecoming’ of Humperdinck’s magical score to the musical environs of Weimar that gave birth to it. More significantly, it is a recording that exhibits renewed commitment to giving Hänsel und Gretel expressive life that takes the opera on its own terms. When performed at this level of excellence, what a sublime, heartwarming opera Hänsel und Gretel is!