A serendipitous double: on Wednesday evening I caught the legendary Leipzig Gewandhausorchester giving a nuanced performance of Tchaikovsky's heavenly Nutcracker score to lively choreography (ballet photos by Ida Zenna - featured below, Madoka Ishikawa as Clara, Francisco Baños Diaz as Drosselmeyer and David Iglesias Gonzalez as the Prince)
and then the following morning there was a full performance of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel (premiered, incidentally, only a year later than The Nutcracker, 1893, just down the road in Weimar, conducted by Richard Strauss). While the ballet crowd was of all ages, including lots of young adults, this one consisted mainly of children (opera photos by Kirsten Nijhof).
The cast I caught included the perfect Gretel, Olena Tokar, regrettably not pictured, whom many may remember in the 2013 final of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. I only just missed by a week her Rusalka in Leipzig. Here's why she would probably be incomparable in that role, too.
I was in Leipzig to see the Blüthner Piano Factory in operation, a unique opportunity to witness perfectionists in the art of pianomaking; I'll be writing about that on The Arts Desk. But of course I was equally excited to follow Bach from the font at Eisenach to the grave in Leipzig's Thomaskirche, for the choir of which, of course, he wrote all of his great choral masterpieces. More on that anon; in the meanwhile here's an Arts Desk feature on how to listen to Bach cantatas throughout the year, with a photo of Bach's statue outside the Thomaskirche at the top.
Anyway, it was clear from Tchaikovsky's Miniature Overture that this Nutcracker would be an interpretation, under Tobias Engeli, the like of which I've only once experienced in the theatre when Svetlanov conducting a run of the long-serving Peter Wright version at the Royal Opera House. The orchestral sound in the most recent theatre on the site, begun in 1956 and inaugurated in 1960, is so warm and immediate, with every timbre of the exquisite cor anglais and clarinet solos beautifully captured. For much of Act One Jean-Philippe Dury's choreography follows familiar lines. It's matched by elegant sets from Yoko Sayama that achieve all the necessary transformations with state-of-the-art effects as well as flats which fly up and down nimbly and costumes by Aleksandr Noshpal serving up a handsome contemporary bourgeois party (Drosselmeyer stands apart).
There's one interpolation - the opening and middle sequences of the delightful 'Marche Miniature' from Tchaikovsky's First Orchestral Suite as a variation for the quirky Fritz (Alessandro Repellini - I assumed the tap-dancer who makes a novelty addition to the Waltz of the Flowers was supposed to be Fritz too, but apparently not).
In both acts' narrative scenes the mice appear prematurely - pictured above, Kiyonobu Negishi's Mouse King and Flavia Krolla as Young Clara - but their battle with female as well as male soldiers is very well choreographed, and the first Pas de Deux for Clara-as-young-woman (Ishikawa) and her Prince (Iglesias Gonzalez) has plenty of novel spinnings to the second transformation scene. The snowflakes sequence has good visual effects, too.
On stage, it all goes a bit half-cock in Act Two. There's a lot in the programme from Dury about Clara's passage to womanhood, but whatever's intended, some of the character dances don't 'read' - least of all the three stomping, punkish folk doing a weird routine to the Mirlitons number (Mother Gigogne, as usual, is nowhere to be found - I love that musical number and always miss it). It's always difficult to thread some kind of narrative through the divertissement; Matthew Bourne's fun Adventures version is best for that - I see from the early days of the blog that I last saw it a decade ago - this one doesn't really try. Some of the costuming shows a penchant for bondage gear, too, though I liked the men's floral waistcoats in the ensemble waltz, even if the women had rather lopsided rose-tits.
The Leipzig corps de ballet is good and hard-working, though one of the six Arabian Dance men did threaten to sabotage the symmetry. The Pas de Deux becomes a Pas de Trois for Drosselmeyer, Clara and Prince, with the Sugar-Plum Fairy (Anna Jo) and her cavalier (Yan Leiva, hat on sideways, doing a Bob Fosse shuffle in the Tarantella) getting the variations. Still, the celesta player (Alden Gatt) was as fine an artist as many of the wind players.
The league of nations in any ballet company always intrigues me, and of course makes for photo-enlivenment of the foyer spaces. What a brilliant idea for Leipzig Opera and Ballet to promote its ensembles through pairs of contrasting photos by Andreas Pohlmann, updated every season. These were complemented on Thursday morning by first the rucksacks and then the interval snacking of the kids there for Hansel.
I have to say my expectation that the noise levels would abate during the actual performance, as they so impressively did at Glyndebourne-on-Tour's schools Falstaff, wasn't realised, but there were many younger kids here too. Quite a bit of the Overture was lost in the loud, long applause for curtain-up, even if it was only on a shooting star. And the restlessness crescendoed across Sandman, Evening Prayer and Angel Pantomime (why the whale? Because Gretel's main comforter is a toy one).
Still, it was a luxury to have Leipzig Opera Generalmusikdirektor Ulf Schirmer conducting. There were some frissony horns and lower-string activity; what a varied miracle Humperdinck's score is, always knowing when to slim down from the full Wagnerian works to the simple. Olena Tokar's little mushroom-Lied was so exquisite, likewise her morning wake-up call. She does some mean dance routines, too, which made me laugh aloud. The other standout among the voices was baritone Julius Orlishausen, and it was good to have a tenor in drag as the batt-y witch, Dan Karlström (though this morning I've been listening to Christa Ludwig on the peerless Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis recording, perfect throughout).
The opera company as a whole seems in very good health. Among its regulars in the photo-parade, especially impressive in the parterre foyer on the first floor,
I recognised Faroese bass Runi Brattaberg, Hagen in the Budapest Ring and very good company at the aftershow gathering (on the right here),
and Wallis Giunta, at the top below and marked out as a star in the making in Opera North's Trouble in Tahiti.
She's Leipzig's resident Cenerentola.
On the way out, I found Tokar between handsome dancers (Yan Leiva and Francisco Baños Diaz, with fellow singer Gal James to the left)
and left the Opera House ahead of lines of departing kids.
And so, with an hour to catch my 14.15 train, I wandered back through town and snatched a quick bowl of excellent soup Zum Arabischen Coffe [sic] Baum, which I had to see
because Schumann's gang gathered here and even have their places marked - here, Schumann and Mendelssohn next to each other
while other musical giants line the walls.
Shame about the piped quartet music, but the place seemed to be inhabited by regulars. Bit difficult to tell, though, if the other diners might not have been German tourists here to visit the justly celebrated Christmas market, which fills the centre of town, radiating outwards from the Markt. More on that, too, in a future entry. Meanwhile,