New Year's Day was a good day for music. At 10AM, local public radio carried the Capitol Steps' holiday show, which was a very good and witty outing for them. We particularly enjoyed tunes like "76 Unknowns", which lampooned the over-populated Presidential Primary race. The "Spoonerism" talk targeted Paris Hilton (or "Harris Pilton") and, while like everyone else I'm tired of her and her ilk, for some reason this one struck me with how carefully constructed it actually was--.
The big event of the day was the Metropolitan Opera High-Definition Live Matinee presentation, which we got to see at the Marcus Cinema in Mequon. We were offered some free tickets by the Florentine Opera since we are season ticket holders, and were very happy to accept!
The New Year's Day special performance was of "Hansel and Gretel," by Englebert Humperdinck. (Not the pop singer--). Humperdinck was quite a skillful composer, although "Hansel and Gretel" is his only work that is regularly performed these days. Despite the fairy-tale theme, it is a musically complex and mature work, as beautiful as any I can think of.
The production mounted by the Met has a "modern" dress and setting, although the family's dismal kitchen makes one think more of Communist East Germany than exactly modern day. The piece opens with Hansel (Alice Coote) and Gretel (Christine Schäfer) alone at home, singing about their hunger pangs, and trying to play games or dance to take their minds of their troubles, instead of working on the family's brush and broom business. Their mother, (Rosalind Plowright) is haggard, harried, and hopeless and running on the ragged edge of breakdown. She comes home and berates the children, with a disasterous shove that spills the gift of milk intended for supper. She orders the children out into the Haunted Wood to hunt for berries to make up the loss. She herself is about to take an ominous handful of pills when her husband (Alan Held) comes home happy and smelling of wine. It turns out that an upcoming celebration has created a demand for his brooms and brushes, and he has sold all he had at premium prices. When he demands why the children are not there to share the wealth, his wife reluctantly admits that she has sent them to the forest. Horrified, the husband relates that the forest is the haunt of cruel witches, and a place from which children do not return. The first act ends as the two go out to search.
The second act is the most fantastic: the kitchen set has morphed into a dark wood, populated by supernumeraries in "tree suits". Hansel rifles the pockets of the suits for berries. The children eventually realize they are lost and benighted, and, overcome by sleep in the form of the Sandman, dream a dream of a spectacular feast.
In the third act, the children come upon the Witch's cottage and are lured in. The Witch (tenor Philip Langridge in old-woman drag) is a fat, manical Julia Child figure, who woos the children with glorious pastries until she can cast her spell of control upon them.
This was a very excellent production all around. Maestro Vladimir Jurowski had the music well in hand, the settings were innovative, and costume and character design clever. In an intermission short subject, the Costume Designer said he did not know where his ideas came from--. It seemed to me that "Alice in Wonderland," was a major and appropriate source: in the dream sequence, the children are waited upon by a fish in waiter's clothes, which made me look for the frog-footman as well. The grotesque Cooks resemble Tenniel's "Dutchess" more than a little. On the other hand, the Sandman is a classic "Uncle Creepy" figure, which works eerily with the female singer's high voice.
As might be expected from a Met production, the singing is flawless, and acting very fine. If there is a standout in the ensemble, it would be soprano Christine Schäfer as Gretel, whose voice is just heart-breakingly beautiful. Alice Coote made a very good boy character, Rosalind Plowright convincingly neurotic as the mother, and Philip Langridge as entertainingly mad as a cannibal witch can be. There was also a touching performance by the Met Children's Chorus as the kids rescued from the Witch's enchantment.
Evening at home, we had the PBS broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Day concert, hosted by the venerable Walter Cronkheit. Maestro Georges Prêtre received the invitation to conduct at the Musikverein, and led the orchestra in a traditionally themed program of pieces by the Strauses and their contemporaries. The telecast includes dancing by members of the Staatsoper and Volksoper Ballet companies, which are usually staged in and around Vienna landmarks. This year, the setting was the precincts of the Hofburg palace, which brought back some very good memories for us. A very fine concert and a good end to the day's events.
I hope that all who read this had as good a New Year's holiday, and will have a Happy New Year to come!