Financial Times / January 2, 2008 / Arts
Hansel and Gretel
Metropolitan Opera, New York
Remember "Hansel and Gretel"? Remember Engelbert Humperdinck's
marvelously gooey, quasi-Wagnerian opera about folksy babes
in the wood, evil spirits on broomsticks, winged angels
selling solace, sentimental piety /uber alles/ and rose-coloured
salvation? Forget it.
The clever "new" version introduced at the Met last Monday
- it was first seen in Cardiff in 1998 - is tough and dark,
sparse and savage, an exploration of deprivation, cruelty
and gluttony in a contemporary always-always-land. Wittily
staged by Richard Jones and moodily designed by John
Macfarlane, with delicately calibrated movement overseen
by the choreographer Linda Dobell, the production represents
a brilliant perversion of an innocent period piece. This
fairy-tale minus fairies is much grimmer than Grimm.
When the kiddies sing their evening prayer and go to sleep
in the forest, actually a surreal drawing room, they dream
of a glorious banquet catered by a corps of cartoon chefs.
No celestial guardians allowed. The wicked witch masquerades
as a roly-poly matron who loves to bake. At the end, after
the baker is baked, the children eat her. Literally.
Romantic nostalgia may be stubbornly denied on the stage,
but it is passionately defended in the pit. Vladimir
Jurowski conducts with masterly urgency, rare sensitivity
and sweep. The virtuosic ensemble (term used advisedly)
is led by Alice Coote, rich-toned and beguilingly tomboyish
as Hansel, and Christine Schafer, exquisitely smart, sweet
and scrappy as Gretel. Rosalind Plowright conveys sympathetic
desperation as the Mother, brashly complemented by Alan
Held's mock-heroic Father. Philip Langridge gobbles up the
draggy outrage of the Witch. In adorable cameos, Sasha
Cooke contributes a decrepit Sandman and Lisette Oropesa a
let's-pretend Dew Fairy. Only the men articulate the text
with much clarity. That may be an unwitting advantage,
given the prissy-Brit poetry of David Pountney's all-too-free
Although the music-making is strong, sight ultimately
overpowers sound in this mock-cautionary tale. Hunger
motivates everything, right up to the shocking, cannibalistic
finale. Food makes the cowardly new world go round. One
might as well call the show "Hambone and Gristle."
Through Humperdinck, Grimmly
By Janos Gereben [11/17/02]
There are many ways to produce "Hansel and Gretel." In an abbreviated
form, it makes an ideal "children's opera." If you go back to the original
story, from Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, you can balance Humperdinck's
splendid Wagnerian excess with potentially horrendous subtext, about
uncaring parents, cannibalistic witches and the like.
Treatments range from a hilarious German soft-porn movie (using the
Schwarzkopf recording, no less!) to Maurice Sendak's tribute to the
survival of children when facing a terrifying world, with only "a drunk
mother and a weak, absent father" on their side. (It's the father who
is usually portrayed as drunk, but Sendak thought otherwise.)
And so we come to today's San Francisco Opera premiere of the Richard
Jones production from Chicago and the Welsh National Opera, directed by
What is it like? Everything AND the kitchen sink. A bloody kitchen
sink - not a curse, just a description. A mish-mash, good and bad, gross
Let's start with what's good: there is plenty of that. Under Nicholas
McGegan's direction, the SF Opera Orchestra was once again at its dazzling
best, playing the great romantic score with precision and elan, never
Graham Clark (unwell, according to a pre-curtain announcement) was a
wonder and a riot as Rosina, a very female witch in this production.
Besides those long, shimmering orchestral portions, Clark's aria-and-cooking
was the highlight of the performance, where everything was integrated,
There were good performances by the principals - Catrin Wyn-Davies as
Gretel, Sara Fulgoni as Hansel, but before I looked in the program, I
could have sworn there are German singers performing the English text,
especially Wyn-Davies. In fact, she is Welsh and Fulgoni is English.
Another singer from Wales, Mary Lloyd-Davies sang the Mother, in a
portrayal right out of a Mike Leigh film.
Greta Feeney's Sandman/Dew Fairy and David Okerlund's Father were
highlights of the show, way out of proportion with their length or
importance. Wonderful performances and excellent diction.
About the garbage in the kitchen sink: the huge scene curtains progress
from an empty plate to the close-up of a mouth and throat (complete with
teeth badly in need of periodontal care) to a bloody plate to a broken
plate. When the children wake up from their sleep at the beginning of
Act 3, their clothes are bloodstained. Just what were the 14 grotesque
cook-angels serving at the end of Act 2?
The brief scene in Act 1 when the parents come home is full of tension,
meanness, threat of violence. John Macfarlane's set design is helpful
in reducing the size of the stage to small spaces, but the tradeoff is
that with their metallic feel and slanted walls, they are deliberately
claustrophobic. "Grisly meat pie" references bring Sweeney Todd into
Never mind that these elements are inappropriate for the many young
children brought, inevitably, to the Opera House. Still, look at the
bright side: not a single trench coat in the whole production!
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