VIENNA – At the end of the evening, the witch was toast Sunday — or more precisely a gingerbread cookie — and the audience at Vienna’s Volksoper loved it.
Of course, with many at the performance of “Haensel und Gretel” at Vienna’s second opera house under the age of 6, one could argue that it was an easy sell. And yes, the fairy tale set to music by Engelbert Humperdinck is bound to please kids, even if the singers and the orchestra are sub-par — which they weren’t this evening.
For the youngsters it’s mostly about the action on stage. Like past generations, the children at Saturday’s performance watched wide-eyed, captivated by the story of the brother and sister who get lost in the woods, are captured by the witch and finally escape her by tossing her in the oven, where, in this version of the tale, she turns into a huge gingerbread cookie.
But more than half of the audience Saturday was adults without children, which tells us that there is much more to this opera than just a fairy tale that Vienna’s “Omas” and “Opas” take their grandkids to, come Christmas.
Humperdinck worked with Richard Wagner, the master of German operatic folklore, and his music, is Wagnerian — rich, lyrical and vaguely reminiscent of some of the German master’s early works. The vocal line is melodic and ranges from pretty to the sublime, evoking occasional frissons even from gray-haired opera goers who have long outgrown fairy tales.
This is music worth performing well. And it was, this Saturday.
As Gretel, Rebecca Nelsen started off well and grew stronger. Her light-lyric soprano was a good fit for the role and she mugged her way admirably through the part of the young waif who saves her and her brother before they turn kids the witch has turned into gingerbread back to life.
Mezzo Adrineh Simonian was Nelsen’s perfect dramatic foil as the bumptious older brother who narrowly escapes turning into the witch’s Sunday roast. Her voice — and acting — harmonized well with Nelsen’s performance.
Robert Woerle was a witch with a difference. The Volksoper version of a production from Karl Doench that premiered more than two decades ago has a man in that role, and what Woerle doesn’t deliver terms of voice, he more than compensates for in terms of the creepy factor. His solo “Hur, hopp” as the witch rants about his evil plans for the kids, was a highlight Saturday.
Sebastian Holecek was strong as Peter, the children’s poverty-stricken father, tossing off his signature “Ach, wir armen, armen Leute (Oh, we poor, poor, people)” in a powerful and carefree manner that belied the difficulties of this aria. But Gertrud Ottenthal, as his wife, occasionally had to slide into some of her higher notes.
Also good: Sera Goesch as the Sandman and Claudia Goebl as the Dew Man.
In the orchestra pit, conductor Alfred Eschwe did justice to the full Germanic tapestry of the score, weaving a polyphonic musical manuscript to the onstage goings on.
A work for kids? Not only. Richard Strauss, the great German composer of the early and mid-20th century, described Haensel und Gretel as “a masterwork of the highest quality,” and its creator as “a great master.”
Young and old at the Volksoper on Saturday will surely agree with him.