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HUMPERDINCK: Hänsel and Gretel
Anny Felbermayer, soprano / Elisabeth Grummer, soprano / baritone / Maria von Ilosvay, contralto / Josef Metternich, baritone / soprano / Else Schurhoff, mezzo-soprano / Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, soprano
Loughton High School for Girls Choir / Bancroft's School Choir /Philharmonia Orchestra/Karajan (1953)

Appendix: Highlights from Hänsel and Gretel by Ines Maria Ferraris, Gerhard Husch, Helen Jung, Meta Seinemeyer, Elisabeth Schumann & Conchita Supervia

Naxos Historical 8.110897/98 [127 mins]

Hänsel and Gretel is far from my favourite opera, and sometimes I find the orchestration too heavy and inclined towards the glutinous, quite apart from the tweeness of major opera singers trying to be small, frightened children (See my review for The Opera Critic of the Zurich/Welser-Most/Sendak production on DVD TDK DV-OPHUG*). So perhaps CD is better for this one, and the famous classic version is so good that I found myself captivated for the first time since memories of the first time I saw it, as a child new to opera. A compelling additional reason to buy it at Naxos's bargain price is that the Reissue Producer, Mark Obert-Thorn, has brought together, and refurbished in an appendix, treasurable recordings from 1928-37.

All these come up fresh and communicative under his "moderate interventionist" treatment, with an immediacy which belies their age. Readers of Musical Pointers will know (or discover by searching under Mark Obert-Thorn's name) that many of my greatest pleasures this year and in years past owe as much to his musicality as to the skills of the musicians captured on shellac, and transferred for our enjoyment miraculously improved, without the distorting compromises of some other transfer engineers. So I choose Mark Obert-Thorn as my Musician of the Year.

We are promised important Callas recordings, soon to be re-released under the Naxos Historical label.

*The Zurich Opera House production of Hänsel & Gretel, filmed before a live audience and with children on stage who mime to the orchestra during the overture, sounds very well indeed under Welser-Most, who had a rough ride in London with the LPO. The Zurich orchestra glows in music which is almost too sumptuous for the children's fairy tale it supports. Humperdinck's Wagnerian score has always seemed to me overblown disproportionately to the homespun little story, with its old fashioned parents, not schooled in modern child management, unaware of the dangers of child abuse in a wicked world in which a Sandman and a Dew Fairy look after lost children. The (male) witch Voker Vogel is never menacing, and no-one involved makes a serious attempt to frighten us. Liliana Nikiteanu and Malin Hertelius are well cast, sing beautifully together and relate to each other with heartfelt conviction in interpretations which will have been affecting and effective in the opera house. But seen close up in one's own sitting room, they offer no illusion.

I have serious difficulty with the jokey and colourful, cartoon-like Maurice Sendak sets, which seem to belong firmly to the television age. It all adds up to an entertainment which is not for me, and the leisurely progress of the drama may be too slow to maintain the engagement of today's children despite the visual gimmicks introduced. I have preferred productions in which the harsh Mother doubles the Witch to give the audience something to think about!

© Peter Grahame Woolf