Three important new productions of Humperdinck's re-telling of Hansel and Gretel have recently made it onto DVD in quick succession. They each represent very different takes on a familiar tale, ranging from Laurent Pelly's scathing critique of consumerism at Glyndebourne (Decca) and Richard Jones' gritty portrayal of urban poverty at the Met (EMI) to a more conservative offering from Moshe Leiser and Patrice Courier (from Covent Garden, on Opus Arte), which nevertheless serves up corpses on meat-hooks in the witch's house. Ever since David Pountney cast the same singer as Mother and Witch in his 1987 English National Opera Production, it seems, directors can hardly get away without peeling away the fairy-tale's possible layers of meaning, usually with Freud close to hand.
Nathaniel Merrill's Met production was already over ten years old when this Christmas Day matinee was broadcast in 1982, and to watch it on this DG reissue is therefore to be transported to an earlier age of innocence. There are more dirndls and lederhosen than you can shake a broomstick at, Gretel strokes a kitten coyly as the curtain opens on Act 1, and a profusion of children make appearances as forest sprites, squirrels and rabbits. The gingerbread house looks a bit shop-worn, but its magical appearance nevertheless sparks a round of applaue, as much as a reassuring emblem of uncomplicated stagecraft and direction, one suspects, as anything else. For once, though, the dream actually features angels, albeit in a rather sickly tableau, so Hansel and Gretel's subsequent conversation makes sense. It's refreshing, too, to see a production that warmly embraces the pious religiosity that informs every page of Adelheid Wette's libretto.
Whether we can these days really believe in such a straightforward, uncritical production is largely down to personal taste. There is no denying, however, the quality of the singing, admittedly old-fashioned but of far more solid and lasting quality than the creaky sets. Judith Blegen doesn't make the most convincing pre-pubescent Gretel, even with the standard suspension of disbelief, but she and Frederica von Stade's boyish Hansel act with an unflinching enthusiasm that only the most cold-hearted will be able to resist. Both sing securely and beautifully and do what they can with Norman Kelley's cutesy and inoffensively banal English translation. Jean Kraft brings a sturdy and rich soprano to her portrayal of Gertrude, as well as unexpected nobility and moving pathos. Michael Devlin's Peter is more straightforward, but he sings out with an irresistible swagger. As the witch, Rosalind Elias is likewise in remarkably good voice, fully singing the role where some have simply screeched. She over-acts outrageously, sweeping in and out on a broomstick (with help from a stunt double) and revelling in her warty prosthetic nose and green tongue.
The rest of the cast is acceptable rather than exceptional, and the Met orchestra play with all the tonal refulgence one would expect. Thomas Fulton's conducting is a touch routine and under-characterised, however, with some of the score, particularly the magical transitions, sounding rushed.
By Hugo Shirley