DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel (2007/2008)

In this reimagining of Engelbert Humperdinck’s beautifully realized fairy tale opera we contemplate journalism and not mythology.

Published on January 31, 2009

HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel (2007/2008)
HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel (2007/2008)

Performers: Soloists/Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau                                                                            
Studio: ArtHaus Musik 101 321  [Distr. by Naxos]                                      Video: 16:9 color
Audio: DD 5.1; DTS 5.1; PCM stereo
Length: 98 minutes
Rating: ***
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is a fine old American expression that apparently has not yet reached the shores of Europe judging by the continuing European mania for reimagining operas. Hansel and Gretel is a grim enough fairy tale when left to its own devices. Here on this new DVD we have a vision of the fairy tale opera that places the story in what the grainy old black-and-white film that accompanies the first act overture (there are three) suggests is post World War I Germany with its horrific economic crisis and the specter of Nazism merely a few years away. The film depicts children in dire poverty and adults reaching for rifles while tanks are rolling through the streets. The second act film shows the destructiveness of the Second World War including scenes of the holocaust. The third act film features the chaotic postwar era in Germany including the Berlin airlift, the rebuilding of Germany’s cities as well as familiar films of the Vietnam War.

Fairy tales are by their very nature metaphors for some of the tragedies and darker aspects of life. Hansel and Gretel is at the very least a dark cautionary tale warning children of the dangers and hardships that must be overcome merely to survive. It holds up a mirror and shows how parents may manifest many imperfections and still be loving parents. Above all it reveals how the world of adults is an extremely dangerous one replete with numerous pitfalls that can ensnare a child. All of these are contained in a single universal tale whose meaning can be gleaned by any child who engages in a little introspection and some thoughtful consideration. Remove the universal aspects of the fairy tale, reduce it to a single specific instance of life’s darkness and what you are left with is journalism and not mythology.

In this reimagining of Engelbert Humperdinck’s beautifully-realized fairy tale opera we contemplate journalism. It is excellently performed with wonderful singing as well as strong and occasionally heartbreaking acting by Sabine Noack the opera’s Hansel and Cornelia Marschall its Gretel.  In a curious casting decision Ludmil Kuntschew, who sings Peter, the father of the two children, also sings the Witch (he wears a kerchief). This results in the loss of all dramatic impact in the Witch’s death scene. There is lovely lyrical playing by the Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau under conductor Markus L. Frank that deemphasizes Humperdinck’s more Wagnerian moments. But the timeless beauty and that collective unconscious resonance that accompanies our most meaningful children’s folktales is missing.

The forest is a metaphor for our deepest fears, those terrors of the night that are barely remembered upon awakening. In this version the forest is gone, replaced by what appears to be a much more prosaic abandoned warehouse filled with hanging brooms. If they are meant to suggest a forest those brooms obviously remind us of something else and the analogy is quickly lost. With that universal metaphor gone so is much of the opera’s deepest meaning.

It seems that fairy tales do have a deeper universal resonance and that our need for them continues throughout our lives. Tolkien’s magnificent Lord of the Rings trilogy in its original printed format and in Peter Jackson’s film version proves that adults need tales of wonder as much as children do. The 1981 film of Hansel and Gretel conducted by Sir Georg Solti featured on a DGG DVD manages to convey more of the magic found in this score. Brigitte Fassbaender sang Hansel and Edita Gruberova was Gretel on that one. The Father was sung by a comedic singer/actor of the first magnitude, the late Herman Prey.

The video and sound on this new DVD is fine with a nice spatial placement of the voices. The orchestra sounds clear with good though not spectacular presence in the presentation of the instruments. The DD and DTS 5.1 sound formats are wider but less rich and robust than is the PCM stereo.

— Mike Birman

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