Hansel and Gretel

I've been a fan of Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel since I was quite young: we had a piano score of it (in English), and excerpts were played on the radio from time to time. In the mid-1950s I saw a touring opera company present it at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and was enchanted, not by the production (which was fairly drab) but by the complexity of the orchestration (which you couldn't hear on AM radio).

Humperdinck was a disciple of Wagner, and the score is quite complex, using theme motifs and intertwining orchestral parts, while maintaining an attractive and easily accessible lyricism.

Since then I've seen two productions on television: an English National Opera production which set the action in the 1950s; and a Welsh National Opera production with a male witch, with the last act in the abattoir school of design (I can't say I cared for it).

I was supposed to be going to the new Royal Opera House production recently, but to my annoyance I had a heavy cold and couldn't make it. However it was broadcast by BBC2 on Christmas Day, and I watched it yesterday evening, so though it's not the same as actually going it's a reasonable substitute.

The problem facing any producer is that just following the stage instructions in the score, with the woodcutter's cottage, the forest, and the gingerbread house, isn't really an option - some new slant needs to be placed on the work. This production starts in a modern tatty council flat: emphasis is placed on the fact that the children are starving; their parents are irresponsible and the father plainly a habitual drunk. (There are justifications for all this in the text). The witch operates in a large kitchen, with children hung on meat-hooks in a freezer, ready to be cooked; reviews of the production varied, some complaining it was too frightening for children, some that it wasn't scary enough. On television the camerawork avoided emphasising the freezer, probably to avoid making it too obvious that the children were (of course) dummies.

The Dream Pantomime, as the children go to sleep in the forest and dream of fourteen angels, is always problematic since fourteen Victorian angels are hardly acceptable. The English National Opera made the angels, rather touchingly, the friendly adults in the childrens' lives - the postman, the milkman, a cinema usherette, and so on. In this production they were, rather oddly, teddy bears (of a sort) in angel's clothing: they brought the children presents that represented what they most wanted - a sandwich each.

Reading the reviews in advance of seeing it, I was a bit dubious: but on the whole I think it worked quite well, with good singing and acting - particularly from Anja Silja as an old-age-pensioner witch complete with pearls and a zimmer frame. Angelika Kirschlager and Diana Damrau were believable as the children and acted and sang splendidly. The conductor was Colin Davis, who brought out the best in this marvellous score.

Posted: Sat - December 27, 2008 at 10:10 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM