Hansel und Gretel
Katrin Wundsam, Alexandra Steiner, Ricarda Merbeth, Albert Dohmen, Christian Elsner, Annika Gerhards, Alexandra Hutton; Kinderchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski
Pentatone PTC 5186605 (hybrid CD/SACD)
This box set is a trip down memory lane, with flexible and attractive packaging, and above all a full text in German and English, and a long and stimulating introductory essay. Marek Janowski presents Humperdinck’s masterpiece with a light touch, very much as he did his complete Wagner series, but much more appropriately. Tempos are on the rapid side, a welcome change from the heavy-handed efforts of some recent stagings and recordings of the opera.
The cast is one of light voices. The children, sung by adults (I assume – no notes on the artists) sounding virtually indistinguishable, Hansel not in the least more boyish than Gretel. The parents are taken by two distinguished and veteran Wagnerians, Ricarda Merbeth a Mother too depressed to sound very angry, and Albert Dohmen a warm Father – when the role is sung as well as this, one wishes it weren’t so short.
The Sandman and the Dew Fairy are appropriately silver-voiced, and the only really questionable casting is Christian Elsner as the Witch. A tenor in this role is not uncommon, but Elsner sings the part so straight that he evokes neither amusement nor alarm. Fortunately Janowski’s tempos are so brisk in Act III that what can drag seems just the right length, but more characterisation would have been better.
For anyone who takes a grim view of this opera, as some recent productions have done, with the oven prepared by the Witch to cook Gretel seen as a hideous premonition of Nazi atrocities, this set will seem merely escapist. My own view is that Hansel und Gretel is escapist, though it has something – but not much – of the darkness of Grimm’s fairy tales. All told, this recording is a welcome addition to a distinguished roster of performances.