Martin Haselböck

Humperdinck: Hänsel & Gretel

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For all its supposed simplicity, Hänsel und Gretel is awfully hard to pull off convincingly. Too often it's dumbed down, an attempt by grown-ups desperately trying to grab children's attention by exaggeration, and the result can be that the opera comes across as saccharine, or just silly, or worst of all, easy for discriminating audiences to ignore. Happily, this live performance from the 2009 Reinsberg Festival presents the opera straightforwardly in a production that is unforced, emotionally honest, spirited, scary, and funny. And because of the efforts of conductor Martin Haselböck and his excellent singers and orchestra, the result is also musically superb. The orchestra, Cappella Istropolitana, sounds plenty big enough for Humperdinck's soaring romanticism, but at the same time it is able to give the score the clarity and intimacy of chamber music. Haselböck seems to have this music in his blood; it surges with a wonderful dancing energy and with a compelling dramatic arc. The singers respond with performances of the same kind of naturalness and immediacy. None of the soloists are international stars, but the entire cast is terrific and vocally impeccable, singing and acting with unmannered spontaneity and exquisite nuance. Bernarda Bobro and Susanne Kreusch as the children, Romelia Lichtenstein and Klaus Kuttler as their parents, Irmgard Vilsmaier as the Witch, and Aleksandra Zamojska as the Sandman and Dew Fairy all deserve accolades for their vocally lovely and dramatically urgent performances. The recorded sound is less than ideal because the singers' movement around the stage causes some balance issues, and there are clicks that are unacceptable for a professional release. Even so, this is a performance that can be recommended without reservation. Opera lovers who feel like they're seen or heard way more than enough Hänsel und Gretels to last a lifetime owe it to themselves to listen to this version; it's likely to reawaken any feelings of affection for the opera and may open some eyes to its wonders for the first time. The production is also available on DVD.

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