Humperdinck called his greatest hit a “Kinderstubenweihfestspiel” (a festival play for the consecration of the nursery) and the course of time has proven this joke appropriate: while Parsifal around Easter is the high point of the year for Wagnerians, Hänsel und Gretel at Christmastime is for everybody (including all those who claim they can’t stand Wagner and ignore the influence he had on Humperdinck).

Anja-Nina Bahrmann (Gretel), Kurt Schreibmayer (Knusperhexe) © Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien
Anja-Nina Bahrmann (Gretel), Kurt Schreibmayer (Knusperhexe)
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien

In 1985, Volksoper director Karl Dönch created a lovely production for this repertory favourite which shows the kitchen of Mozart’s birthplace as a part of the broom-maker’s house, an eerie forest with an owl whose eyes glow red in the dark, and a gingerbread house from times without artificial colorants or flavours. Happily, these sets have been preserved for posterity in the program, which since last year consists of three pop-up cards with a handwritten synopsis and drawings by set and costume designer Toni Businger.

With the exception of Gertrud Ottenthal (who nailed the tone of a working mother returning to children whose homework isn’t done), the evening’s cast consisted entirely of members of the ensemble, which, in other pieces, occasionally makes for a not-too-enthralling evening. But with Hänsel und Gretel one can trust the Volksoper to be a good parent who won’t compromise on the children’s Christmas gifts, and the quality of Viennese performances for young audiences is generally very high. Also, knowing that many singers have started remarkable careers there (Daniela Fally, the Staatsoper’s new Zerbinetta, is a former Volksoper Gretel), there is all the more reason to give things a try rather than sniff at the absence of big names. Luckily, these expectations were fulfilled and singing was definitely above what could be expected for a popular piece that will probably sell no matter what. Everything looked and sounded well rehearsed and one felt the will to make this new run of performances special.

Heading the cast with baritonal authority and esprit was Sebastian Holecek as the broom-maker, who didn’t only remind me of his father, the Volksoper legend Heinz Holecek, but looked, sounded and acted like he had some Hermann Prey genes in him. He may be tired of hearing that, but everybody old enough to remember these singers certainly enjoyed this bit of nostalgia. Holecek, it should be said, was also the only one whose diction was always perfectly understandable. In this respect, Hänsel und Gretel is not an easy piece – the folk songs aside, much German prose is spread over even more notes, so crystal-clear delivery is needed to avoid children asking: “Which language is this sung in?” (as actually happened).

Hänsel was Elvira Soukop, whose demeanour and singing were adequately brazen and boyish; her looks and almost vibrato-less voice rounded off this fine portrait of a boy. Anja-Nina Bahrmann, an experienced Volksoper Gretel, stepped in for a sick Rebecca Nelson and gave an excellent performance; had the audience not been informed of the change, few would have noticed she was not in the original cast.

Original in a different sense was tenor Kurt Schreibmayer as the Gingerbread Witch – his performance was certainly engaging, but with the many wilfully cracked notes he produced, one couldn’t help wondering how he does in a serious tenor role nowadays (and shivering a bit at the thought). Humperdinck wrote the score for a mezzo and didn’t like the thought of a tenor in it; but as vocal travesty is currently in vogue, it may be only a question of time until we see a countertenor in this role.

Claudia Goebl sang her minor part as the Sandman with the appropriate sweetness of tone, whereas Dewman Sera Goesch had a bit of a rough edge. The children’s chorus, in traditional Austrian costumes, was given by local university music students (almost half of them of Asian extraction – kudos to the Volksoper for showing the city’s musical reality so openly); and while they are no Arnold Schoenberg Chor (which also has many Asian members), they gave a fine performance.

What came from the pit was excellent, where Guido Mancusi cued flawless solos (especially from the violin and cello) and made the overture climax in a pianissimo high C right out of a fairy tale.

So, with some pleasant surprises, it was more or less the same procedure as every year at the Volksoper – and very enjoyably so – though essays on dysfunctional families, child abuse or Hänsel and Gretel’s obscure roots in periods of famine will have to wait for a bolder production. But that’s not the house’s business.

****1