It has been worth the wait. Glyndebourne's first ever staging of Humperdinck's Märchenoper or 'fairy tale' opera is a real feast for the ears and is not exactly a hardship to watch either.
It has energy in abundance, a very attractive pair of principals and a clear enough view of what the piece is all about – although some critics have chided French director Laurent Pelly for his apparent lack of an overall, tautly-defined concept.
Yet for my money – and, judging by the warmly enthusiastic reception at the end, for most of the audience, who gave the fourth performance the reception it deserved, a well sung and beautifully played Hänsel and Gretel is what Glyndebourne is all about. Who needs director's concept opera here?
But there is a theme. The drop curtain against which the overture is played is a flattened cardboard box, reinforced with sticky tape, with a barcode and the stencilled words Humperdinck Hänsel and Gretel bottom right. We are getting a package. The drop curtain rises to reveal a corrugated cardboard house, doors swinging at alarming angles, a stained old fridge in the kitchen upstage left. The construction is solid enough to take some boisterous stage play by Hänsel (the excellent, thoughtful Jennifer Holloway) and Gretel (Adriana Kucerova in the performance of her career so far) but fragile enough for the whole side wall to be flattened and break away at the climactic moment when the milk jug is smashed and the precious milk spilled.
From cardboard housing we move for Act Two to a barren wood, white tree trunks propped at various angles with a few plastic bags fluttering from their branches, backlit by an ever-changing cyclorama (Joel Adam's lighting designs verging on the expressionist at times), and then into this space comes the piece de resistance for the final act, an elaborate supermarket-style stack of every child's goodie under the sun. Checkouts slide in and out, the whole structure revolves and folds in and out, and the Witch (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) finally meets her doom, Tosca-style, falling from a battlement of chocolate boxes into the furnaces within and beneath.
The staging all works like clockwork. It has the refreshing aura of competence throughout. Pelly may not have anything that profound to say about the psychology of family breakdown, violence, child abuse by the Witch and the catalogue of Freudian themes explored in the excellent Glyndebourne programme note by John Deathridge, but he brings a light and witty touch to many of the opera's moments and he makes a Grimm brothers fairy tale into a bit of a pantomime. It is apt that Glyndebourne are taking Hänsel and Gretel on their pre-Christmas tour this year.
The evening had several stars, but pride of place must go to the orchestra, which played superbly for Kazushi Ono, making his Glyndebourne debut. From the horn chorale that starts the overture, beautifully balanced and tightly focused, we knew that top-class playing awaited us. Ono, whose experience in a wide variety of repertoire at La Monnaie is now beginning to pay off, let the music breathe throughout and guided everything with a very sure hand. The sound of his Hänsel and Gretel – delicate woodwind, hushed strings, unforced brass - was wonderful. And he made those vital distinctions throughout: from mezzo piano to piano to pianissimo – nothing was approximate, it was all rehearsed and flawlessly executed.
Jennifer Holloway looked the part of Hänsel and hardly put a foot wrong all evening. She has a clear, well-focused mezzo and provided strong underlying support in her many duets and concerted ensembles. Her German diction was however not great – a fault common to most of the cast. Opposite her, Adriana Kucerova was (again, apart from her German diction) an absolute delight. The voice is strong, ideally suited for a house like Glyndebourne, and she dominated vocally: pure, ringing tone and a delightful stage presence throughout. Kucerova had one alarming memory lapse at the start of Act Three and for several bars we held our breath while Ono tried to cue her back in: the moment came, and she was away again. That minor blemish apart, Kucerova triumphed in the role – and what energy she exuded throughout!
Energy of a different kind came from Irmgard Vilsmaier as the Mother. No down-trodden wife, she would clearly be someone to hold her own against rebellious children and would-be abusive husbands! Vilsmaier has sung various Wagner roles (including Brunnhilde) and it showed: the voice is secure and distinctive, with an attractive open quality and a firm delivery. For once I found myself wishing that she (as often happens) had been doubled in the part of the Witch: but then we are back to those Freudian interpretations, which Pelly clearly wanted to avoid.
The outstanding German diction of the evening came from Klaus Kuttler as the Father. From his opening offstage 'Ral-la-la-la' to his lager-loutish exit to the forest in search of his children, Kuttler characterised his words strongly and came across as a singer in his element. He has a high, unforced baritone (I would love to hear him in some early Verdi roles) and expressive warmth in the E-G range. The part is an ungrateful one, but Kuttler made much of it.
Against these principals, both Amy Freston and Malin Christensson (the Sandman and the Dew Fairy respectively) were slight disappointments. Both have light, clear, true soprano voices and both have impressed me previously: but they were under-characterised and made little impression here. That leaves Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, once again (as in this year's Poppea) donning a drag queen outfit and hamming it up. He sang well enough and his tenor voice is sufficiently expressive to conjure up a fine Loge (a part he has sung) in the making: but here he was neither sufficiently evil nor sufficiently funny to be truly memorable.
Humperdinck, in 1890, set to piano the first four childrens songs that were to be incorporated in Hänsel und Gretel and worked his way for nearly three years towards the full opera. It is a peculiar hybrid. His orchestration not only has a Wagnerian sound overall, but little phrases from Wagner operas (Meistersinger and The Ring in pride of place) constantly pop up and surprise you. By contrast, the melodic and harmonic simplicity of passages like the children's Evening Prayer in Act Two take us forward to Richard Strauss, who conducted the first performance of Hänsel and Gretel in Weimar in 1893 and who pronounced the work 'a masterpiece'. Pelly's production at Glyndebourne does not really make that case, although his slowly-emerging chorus of child angels in the forest, all dressed in white against a deep blue cycloramic background, made a touching and memorable image. But taken overall, as a sound, well-crafted staging that is played against one of the most sensitive and beautiful accounts of the score that I have heard, it makes for a rewarding evening.
Preview of the 2008 season at Glyndebourne:
Albert Herring from Glyndebourne on Tour at Sadler's Wells, December 07
Tristan und Isolde on Opus Arte DVD from Glyndebourne
Le nozze di Figaro from the 1962 Festival on Glyndebourne's in-house label