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Hänsel e Gretel (1957)

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Credited cast:
Maria Amadini
Enrico Campi ...
Peter
Fiorenza Cossotto ...
Hänsel
Jan Poleri ...
Gretel
Vittoria Polombini
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Musical

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25 December 1957 (Italy)  »

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Astoundingly Good-but-Forgotten Opera Film
2 March 2017 | by See all my reviews

Don't worry about spoilers; if you don't already know the story line of HANSEL AND GRETEL, you have not yet been born!

As both a fanatical opera and film fan, I am amazed that I'd never even heard of this filmed opera before, especially as it stars the pre-eminent Italian mezzo-soprano of the second half of the last century, Fiorenza Cossotto. The film isn't even listed in Ken Wlaschin's major reference work THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OPERA ON SCREEN. Yet here it is, being seen after lying for some 60 years in undeserved obscurity.

This is about as good an opera film as I have ever seen that was made primarily for kids, but most opera-loving adults enjoy Humperdinck's opera even more than do the kids, and they will (as I did) love this. The opera is complete, all the roles are sung and acted by very well-known opera singers, the direction - seemingly TV-inspired, but with a camera that never stops moving and seems to be able to keep pace with the considerable activity of the two leading kids (an amazing accomplishment in itself) - is absolutely first rate throughout. It is in black and white (all horror stories should be, and this is a horror story). The trick photography is more than adequate for its time and the needs of the story, and the scenes of the siblings in the woods, with superimposed fairies lulling them to sleep, is more than just quite charming; it is moving in every way. At most times in the film, the kids are accompanied by, or watched over, by all sorts of elves and other woodland acquaintances, and they all look very real (think of Italian Munchkins).

For veteran opera-lovers, hearing this classic opera sung in Italian may take a bit of getting used to, but you will. Cossotto, at 21 about as reasonable-looking a Hansel as a grown-up can be, gives absolutely no evidence of the majestic Verdi mezzo she will soon become (in fact, the very thought of Cossotto dancing through the woods like a rustic Debbie Reynolds is hard to believe even after you've seen her do it!), and the totally unknown Jan Poleri is a delightfully pretty and perky Gretel. Did she ever play Heidi? I wonder. Their parents are perfectly played by Enrico Campi (a sometime Don Giovanni) and Maria Amadini, but the absolute delight of the whole production is Vittoria Palombini as the Witch. Palombini was basically a supporting singer (she is the Suzuki in the famous 1939 Gigli-dal Monte MADAMA BUTTERFLY recording, which has never been out of print), but achieved a certain notoriety in this role, which she sang often on the stage. Her make-up is both funny and somewhat horrifying; if the kids get scared when Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch shows up uninvited in Oz, this witch may similarly distress them a bit, and she really doesn't play it for laughs except for her ride on her broom, which is both impressively perfect and hilariously over-the-top coming from an Italian opera singer (you really have to see it).

Anyway, I've been watching and listening to this opera for about 65 years now, and while some recordings of it may have equaled the singing heard here, and while some visual productions have been more ambitious in scope, I cannot recall a visual presentation that equals the overall effect of this one. It is small, it is intimate, it is charming, and in its way, it is perfect.


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