Cast: Haensel-Brigitte Fassbaender/ Gtetel-Edita Gruberova/ Peter-Hermann Prey/ Gertrud-Helga Dernesch/ Witch-Sena Jurinac/ Sandman-Norma Burrowes/ Dew Fairy-Elfriede Hoebarth
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Georg Solti
Studio: DGG DVD 80005780-09 (Distrib. Universal)
Video: 4:3 Color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Length: 107 minutes
As directed by August Everding of the Kammerspiele in Munich, this film version of Humperdinck’s charming 1893 opera is all about childhood–its fears and joys. The opening credits sequence, using animation to make the opera house grow and transform like the Witch’s cottage, immediately captures the attention of the live audience–all children, apparently abandoned by their parents to shift in their own world–and the camera will come back from time to time to register their alternate terror and delight in the fate of the Brothers Grimm protagonists. Once we see Solti in the pit leading the end of the Overture, then we enter the forest via the theater set and movie soundstage, so that our point of view participates directly in the actions of the brother and sister. Most of the shots are low, at the level of the children, except for their blessed sleep while we and the angels guard them.
The singing cast is superb, both vocally and dramatically. The sound was recorded in the Sofiensaal, Vienna in September 1980, and the acting mimes the audio tracks. The sets are naturalistic, taking us to the cottage and woods, amid peaks and clouds, all to dispel the limits of the conventional theater. Finding her frolicsome children unproductive, the Mother (Dernesch) sends them after strawberries, having herself broken the precious jug of milk that was to provide supper. Her “I am weary to death” in stark harmonies points to the expressionism of Berg and Egk as much as the opera’s dances and diatonism hearken to Wagner. Hermann Prey’s Father is the soul of rustic energy: he even makes hunger sound attractive. His lusty appreciation of his wife, all sung bel canto, points to the Falstaff Prey contained in his own nature. How the mother ever counts 14 eggs so quickly makes her a savant. The father’s temper flares at the broken jug, and he drives a hatchet into some wood. But just as mercurially, he worries about the children’s wandering in the darkening woods, with the Witch afoot. He mimes the Witch’s ride while the camera urges his own shadow as his partner. He pulls two flaming brands from the fire to illustrate fricasseed children, baked by the Witch. His “We’ll both go to the Witch’s lair” is a moment from Siegfried, accompanied by some deft animation of the cottage brooms all in flight behind the panicked parents.
Cut to Solti for the Witch’s Ride, the Act II Prelude. True to the Karajan-style videos, the camera follows the musical progress through the instruments, then a Disneyesque sequence of a squadron of witches – Ride of the Valkyies meets A Night on Bare Mountain. Gruberova sings of a mankin as she pines in the forest, placing a little garland of flowers of her hair, a gift for her brother. Haensel returns with a basket of strawberries. He proclaims Gretel a princess of the forest and gives her a scepter. In imitation of the cuckoo, the children “steal” and gobble the strawberries. Cut to a young audience member who delights in the protagonists’ gluttony. Overhead shot to capture their fear at having lost their way out of the forest. At Haensel’s yell in counterpoint to the cuckoo, Gretel complains of wraiths and the mankin, and a figure – the Sandman – beckons them. Norma Burrowes’ aria might well have come straight from heaven, answered by the chaste innocence of the children’s evening prayer. Did Richard Strauss envy this scene for his finale to Der Rosenkavalier? The Pantomime superimposes illuminated forest scenes over the sleeping children, over whom 14 angels keep watch. Awestruck young spectators acknowledge the effect.
Cut to the opera house and Solti’s leading the VPO French horns, flute, and basses for the Act III Prelude. The curtain opens upon the fogbound forest and our sleeping siblings, now awakened by the Dewman, a voice from a suspended dewdrop. Violin solo for the breeze in the treetops. Gruberova invokes the sound of birdcalls to waken her brother, and a bird duet ensues. Gretel looks into a pool of water to recount her dream of angels, the camera posing her and her brother upside-down. A meadow appears, via animated time-lapse, and sunflowers point the way to the Witch’s candy-house. “O sweet little palace, how dainty you are!” Like two “nibbling mice,” the pair select sweets from the house and invoke the voice of the Witch, played with earthy gusto by veteran Sena Jurinac. A huge butterfly net cast over Haensel, the Witch says, “You needn’t be afraid.” Quite a cackle as she contemplates another meal. When the Witch invokes Paradise to the children, is Schubert’s Erl-Koenig very far away?
Spectacular lighting effects for the Hokus-pokus, and the set becomes absolutely Gothic, a step from Vincent Price via Roger Corman. The audience has its collective hands to their lips. A caged Haensel admonishes Gretel to observe the Witch’s every move. Jurinac gets her own mad-scientist scene, the beakers and the oven full flame. She rocks a gingerbread man in anticipation of her unholy feast; then her broomstick dance, fast cutting of Jurinac in flight and behind the apparatus and ogling the audience. Gretel steals the enchanted elder-bush while the Witch munches almonds. A key unlocks Haensel, even as the camera lingers over the oven fire. Into the oven goes the nasty Witch, cooked “dead as a dodo.” The happy siblings pluck a final repast from the house, which then explodes. The enchanted gingerbread men become a host of children now released from thrall, “free eternally.” At a touch the children all awaken, and the elder-bush frees their limbs. The Song of Praise resonates to the Father’s reunion with his lost children, and there is general rejoicing at the appearance of a huge magic cake, the Witch’s last incarnation. At the final prayer, the distinction between audience and players breaks down, and our perilous world is redeemed.