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Subject: Re: Hänsel und Gretel - a masterpiece
From: Jon Alan Conrad <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Jon Alan Conrad <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 16 Nov 2006 10:52:17 -0500
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On Nov 16, 2006, at 12:00 AM, Niel Rishoi wrote:

> Hänsel und Gretel.  A genuine musical masterpiece.
> Underrated as a musical drama (except to music buffs).

All very true. Also (as Niel notes) *much* harder to perform well  
than people think. H & G themselves need voices that can suggest  
childlike clarity and purity (any hint of sophistication "putting on  
an act" is fatal here) and at the same time have a size and fullness  
that makes sense on top of a very busy post-Wagnerian orchestra. The  
parents literally do call for Wagner-scale mezzo (or dramatic  
soprano) and bass-baritone. And the conductor has to blend and  
balance the complex colors and textures while keeping the rhythms  
bouncing and dancing along. Very few conductors really get that right.

> H & G was the first opera-based music I ever heard. 5 years
> old. Disneyland children’s record.  Marni Nixon, Sally
> Sweetland (is that a real name or was it Nixon doubling
> up?) sang the children,

Sally Sweetland is a real person, as the IMDb reveals. Her main work  
in films was as the singing voice double for Joan Leslie in movies  
like RHAPSODY IN BLUE, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, and THE SKY'S THE LIMIT.

I don't know if H&G was my first opera-based music, but I was  
introduced to it early, via a stop-motion puppet film that got a big  
release in the US in 1954. I was taken to its fancy "limited  
engagement" (the old McVicker Theater in Chicago, special souvenir  
booklet, the works) as a birthday treat. It's still available on DVD.  
The "songs" remained sung (the kids' ditties, the broommaker song,  
and actually quite a lot of the witch's material), but the rest  
turned into spoken dialogue over Humperdinck's music. Mildred Dunnock  
was the mother, Constance Brigham did both H and G, Helen Boatwright  
was the Dew Fairy, and best of all, the Witch was... Anna Russell!  
She had a grand campy time, throwing in extra ho-yo-to-hos and so on,  
on a level that kids like me weren't set up to appreciate. But I sure  
enjoy her in it now.

> I place H&G in the same category, in terms of its
> guilelessness and genius, with The Wizard of Oz – both the
> L. Frank Baum book, and the Hollywood movie (which was one
> of the few book-to film transformations that not only was
> not mangled, but which complement each other beautifully).

Sorry, Niel, a few of us Oz purists think that the movie *did* mangle  
the book. In particular, it was unforgivable to make it all a dream.

David Shengold wrote:

>> As to recordings.
>> My favorite Hansel: Helen Donath. Perfect. Voice and
>> manner, faultless
>> Gretel: Elisabeth Grümmer. Endearinmgly boyish, fresh.
>> The Witch: undoubtedly – Christa Ludwig. A scream. The most
>> hilarious, relishedly “evil” witch on record.

> Agreed in principle, though Donath in fact sings Gretel  ("  
> perfect" is not too strong a word) and
> Gruemmer Haensel! Wish they were paired...
>
> And Ludwig is indeed phenommenal.

Agreed on Donath. I would say it was the role she was born to sing,  
except it somehow sounds like a backhanded compliment. I adore her.  
And at least she and Ludwig are paired on the same recording (this is  
the Ludwig Witch to get by the way -- not her ill-advised later  
second recording -- and I have heard Mme Ludwig say that it's her  
favorite of anything she ever recorded). It also has a wonderfully  
simple and affecting Father by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at his best,  
and the incomparably best of all Dew Fairies, Lucia Popp. And Kurt  
Eichhorn, much more than many bigger names, is a conductor who really  
understands how to keep it all moving and flowing, without cheating  
the atmosphere. That Eurodisc/RCA recording, even acknowledging a  
casting misstep or two, is an absolute classic version of a very  
great opera.

Jon Alan Conrad
Department of Music
University of Delaware

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