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Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel raises a number of questions. Why does it not put children off gingerbread? Why has the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra never performed it before? And why do we often overlook Wagner’s immense influence on the score?

The last two questions were taken care of last week in Berlin’s Philharmonie hall. This was Mark Elder’s debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, a lion-tamer’s job at the best of times. It is easier to impress this most sceptical of super-groups with spectacular symphonic repertoire, and hard to knock audiences’ socks off with a concert performance of a beloved children’s opera.

Elder aimed with laudable determination at understatement, and concentrated on exposing all of Humperdinck’s many Wagnerian undertones. The result was a reflective, lyrical performance with moderation as its guiding light. That restraint made for a sweet, sometimes beguiling and well-balanced evening that set nobody
on fire.

A solid cast gave a good account of the fairy-tale. Michaela Kaune’s Gretel was charmingly ingenuous, Katarina Karnéus gave a straight-laced Hänsel, Susan Bullock’s stepmother was articulate and plausibly firm. Jane Henschel won half the laughs as an emphatic and wittily acrid witch, Franz Grundheber the other half for his lovably ruffianish father, every word crystal-clear.

With its Aix Rheingold still fresh in recent memory, the orchestra rewarded Elder’s clear approach with echoes of Wagnerian giants and water-nymphs. But lush and transparent playing was laced with explicit indifference. This is an orchestra too proud to perform badly, but also too certain of itself to be wooed on a first date. Elder should come back.
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