Fourteen angels to watch over you

On the fifth of March, Philip Langridge will be dead for two years. For me, in my mind and heart, he’ll never be truly gone. Well, yes, I miss him.

Alas, there are still so many recordings to discover, as I haven’t seen even remotely everything he’s ever sung. My latest discovery:

Philip Langridge as “the witch” in Hänsel und Gretel, for your enjoyment:

I didn’t realize it had been released on DVD — I added it to my disproportionate wishlist on Amazon. (Disproportionate in terms of relation to the likelihood of ever getting my hands on as much money I’d need to buy all those gems.)

I had seen pictures of this; I always wanted to see the production, and I cannot even tell on how many levels this clip delights me. Langridge was — and still is — primarily famous for roles where he plays very complex, ponderous or slightly broken characters. To some, as Aschenbach, or Grimes, even the term “fucked up” would perfectly apply. I’d go as far as to assume he really loved to sing the witch for a change — At this stage of his career, if he wouldn’t have liked to have done it, he simply wouldn’t have, I guess. For once, he could misbehave, and outrageously so, creeping on little children … (Alright, Grimes does that too. Aschenbach as well, in a way, I just love this picture from The Independent.)

What delights me most in this clip from the Hänsel und Gretel recording: Listen until the end, where he is wielding the wooden spoon like a sword. Am I the only one who has to think of Siegfried’s “Hoho!  Hoho! Hohei!  Hoho!!”?

For comparison: At 0:35 onwards in this recording.

Langridge explored all the range his Fach would possibly allow, and managed to depict every character with depth and even dignity. Even his witch isn’t primarily evil, she seems like a trickster, and this is completely compliant with the fairy tale. The witch is not a torturer, for her her behaviour is just how you treat children; she isn’t evil in her self-perception. She talks to Hänsel like farmers would to their piglets. “You’ll have to eat, so you’ll get fat, hm?” What is creepy is that those are humans, so, what makes the character of the witch truly scary, is that for her, apparently, this makes no difference.

To me, Langridge’s performance has something from the charming old ladies in “Arsenic And Old Lace.” Nice old ladies, utterly charming, their habit of killing people is only a quirk, really.

So, Langridge didn’t quite get to sing Wagner, but I find he gets reasonably close in this excerpt. After all, even Humperdinck himself called Hänsel und Gretel a “Kinderstuben-Weihfestspiel”, of course referring to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, the one and only “Bühnenweihfestspiel.” (The beauty of compound nouns in German… A Bühnenweihfestspiel means a sacred festival piece, or, even a piece that is consecrating the secular stage. So, a Kinderstubenweihfestpiel would be a piece that consecrates the children’s room.)

I remember having seen a contemporary drawing where Humperdinck complains that all the great mythological subjects had already been claimed Wagner. So, Wagner has “Tristan und Isolde,” whereas Humperdinck was stuck with “Hänsel und Gretel”.

Humperdinck’s music is different from Wagner’s, he doesn’t have a Leitmotiv-fixation to start with, but his orchestration as well as his style bears many similarities. (Now I wonder where something like the Gralsglocken (the bells for the  Holy Grail from Parsifal) might fit into Hänsel and Gretel.)

This said, I hope I could explain why I love Langridge’s Wagnerian approach. Oh, and his costume and the way he dances, … isn’t he just fantastic?

I’ll leave you with another production, this time from the Welsh National Opera.

The Evening Hymn, or Abendsegen in German, is a real tearjerker, so have your handkerchiefs ready.

Engelbert Humperdinck, 
Libretto by Adelheid Wette 

Abendsegen / Evening Hymn

from “Hänsel und Gretel” 

GRETEL

Let us first say our evening prayer.
( They cower down and fold their hands.)

BOTH.

When at night I go to sleep,
fourteen angels watch do keep :
two my head are guarding,
two my feet are guiding,
two are on my right hand,
two are on my left hand,
two who warmly cover,
two who o’er me hover,
two to whom ’tis given
to guide my steps to Heaven.
( They sink down on to the moss, and go
to sleep with their arms twined round
each other. Complete darkness.}

Scene III. 

(Here a bright light suddenly breaks through the mist which forthwith rolls itself together into the form of a staircase, vanishing in perspective, in the middle of the stage. Fourteen angels, in light floating garments, pass down the staircase, two and three at intervals, while it is getting gradually lighter.
The angels place themselves, according to the order mentioned in the evening hymn, around the sleeping children.)

GRETEL
Lass uns den Abendsegen beten !
(Sie kauern nieder und falten die
Hände. )

BEIDE.

Abends, will ich schlafen gehn,
vierzehn Engel um mich steh’n,

zwei zu meinen Häupten,
zwei zu meinen Füßen,
zwei zu meiner Rechten,
zwei zu meiner Linken,
zweie, die mich decken,
zweie, die mich wecken,
zweie, die mich weisen
zu Himmelsparadeisen.

(Sie sinken aufs Moos zurück und
schlummern Arm in Arm verschlungen
alsbald ein.)

Dritte Scene.

(Plotzlich dringt von obenher ein heller Schein durch den Nebel, der sich wolkenförmig zusammenballt und die Gestalt einer in die Mitter der Bühne hinabführenden Treppe annimmt.

Vierzehn Engel, in lichten, lang herabwallenden Gewändern, schreiten paarweise, wahrend das Licht an Heiligkeit zunimmt, in Zwischenräumen die Wolkentreppe hinab und stellen sich, der Reihenfolge des “Abendsegens” entsprechend, um die schlafenden Kinder auf. Das erste Paar zu den Häupten, das zweite zu den Füssen, das dritte rechts, das vierte links; dann verteilen sich das fünfte und das sechste Paar zwischen die andern Paare, so dass der Kreis der Engel vollständig geschlossen wird. Zuletzt tritt das siebente Paar in den Kreis und nimmt als “Schutzengel” zu beiden Seiten der Kinder Platz. Die übrigen Engel reichen sich nunmehr die Hand und führen einen feierlicben Reigen um die Gruppe auf. Die ganze Szene ist von intensivem Lichte erfüllt. Während die Engel sich zu einem malerischen Schlussbilde ordnen, schliesst sich langsam der Vorhang.

Libretto via the Internet Archive and Opera-guide.ch

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4 thoughts on “Fourteen angels to watch over you

  1. Aw, I wish I’d seen him as Loge!

    But as Mime, … Funnily there is this classic production where Heinz Zednik as Mime is chopping up parsley, etc., so this would kind of perfectly blend into the theme of cooking-preparations.

    But well, I’m not sure if he fits the type, and honestly, I always found Wagner’s male roles pale and not very complex in comparison to the female ones he created. (Only on average and generally speaking.)

  2. Thanks for this. I looked at a few of his recordings on YouTube, but the one above is hilarious!

    Also, thanks for the Welsh National Opera. The fish/butler and the angel/cooks were particularly fine, even if they were not singing.

  3. Thank you 😉 Well, yes, but even if I said I like the one from the WNO — and I do — there should be a warning or something on the programme. I mean, this opera is traditionally visited by school classes.

    This production makes Hänsel and Gretel more potentially traumatic than Bambi.

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