Classical: First Night - Hansel and Gretel

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The Independent Culture
One might not expect an opera based on a fairy-tale by the Brothers Grimm to be a major hit right across the board - with children and adults, with the occasional opera-goer and with the most devoted of cognoscenti - but such is the case with Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. In fact, Humperdinck's enduring fame rests almost exclusively on this one opera, the success of which has been constant since its premiere in Weimar at Christmas 105 years ago.

In 1890, Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, dramatised the Grimm story for her children to perform. At first, Wette asked her brother to compose four songs for the show; they then decided to make the project into a full-scale opera. Wette eloquently amplified the rather stark Grimm parable to introduce the characters of the Father, the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, as well as providing the extras of echoes and angels, to allow scope for extended ballet sequences. Humperdinck's masterful contribution pitched both the tone and structure of his opera in the prevailing Germanic post- Wagnerian climate. The work, of course, has an "echt" Germanic origin; moreover, he employs Wagnerian leitmotif, and a pristine orchestral and harmonic texture intriguingly poised between folksong and realism.

None other than Richard Strauss was highly impressed, for he conducted the premiere, and the work became an overnight success. English National Opera has also made a success of Hansel and Gretel ever since it mounted David Pountney's acclaimed production in 1987. Not seen at the Coliseum since 1993, it now returns, revived by David Sulkin. Pountney's enchanting setting has a post-war feel and, in the dreams of its personae for a brave new world, grimy kitchens transform into forests, and nightmares alternate with sweet dreams.

A powerful cast is spearheaded by company principals Nerys Jones and Margaret Richardson as the children, with Elizabeth Vaughan extending her mezzo range by doubling as the Mother and the Witch. Suzannah Clarke makes her house debut as the Dew Fairy, and the work is conducted by Elgar Howarth, returning to the Coliseum for the first time since winning the Evening Standard Outstanding Achievement in Opera award for his stirring work on Zimmermann's Die Soldaten.

`Hansel and Gretel' opens at the Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2N (0171-632 8300) on 21 Oct at 7.30pm

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