Friday, 14 December 2018

Chocolate covered fairy-tale: Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel - Hanna Hipp, Jennifer Davis, Gerhard Siegel - Royal Opera House (Photo Clive Barda/Royal Opera )
Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel - Hanna Hipp, Jennifer Davis, Gerhard Siegel
Royal Opera House (Photo Clive Barda/Royal Opera )
Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel; Jennifer Davis, Hanna Hipp, Michael Schuster, Eddie Wade, Gerhard Siegel, dir: Antony McDonald, cond: Sebastian Weigle; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 December 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)

A new version of the perennial classic, which is pure fairy-tale but done with imagination

Fairytales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way, you can take away the simple delight of the score but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

The Royal Opera's new production of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel replaced Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's rather dark, contemporary vision of the opera, one that was mostly aimed at adults. On 13 December 2018, Antony McDonald's new production was firmly on the family-friendly side, the production notes saying that it was suitable for children over the age of six. McDonald, who both directed and designed, took a picture-book fairytale approach, yet did so with style and intelligence.

The eponymous children were played be Jennifer Davis and Hanna Hipp with Michaela Schuster and Eddie Wade as their parents (Wade was a very late replacement for an ailing James Rutherford), and Gerhard Siegel as the witch. Plus Christina Gansch as the Dew Fairy and Haegee Lee as the Sandman. Sebastian Weigle conducted.

During the overture, the drop curtain depicted a picture-perfect Alpine valley, but we had two glimpses of Hänsel, Gretel and their family, the first happy and prosperous, the second dejected and poor, with a Swiss clock at the top of the proscenium indicating the passage of time. The look of the opening act was very much that of older traditional productions, with a realistic wooden chalet and even a stove (on which Mother would 'cook' at the end of the act). Yet the realism only went so far, and this was very much a fairytale with the family's hard times not having any of the dirty, sharp edges which some productions bring to it.

Michaela Schuster was a magnificent mother, really singing the role and making the character quite serious yet approachable. Eddie Wade gave sterling support as Father, a role which he only took over as short notice, and their scene at the end of Act One was a complex delight.

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel - Hanna Hipp, Jennifer Davis, - Royal Opera House (Photo Clive Barda/Royal Opera )
Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel - Hanna Hipp, Jennifer Davis, - Royal Opera House (Photo Clive Barda/Royal Opera )

As the two children, Jennifer Davis and Hanna Hipp created an engaging and believable interaction, though these were fairytale children and the games never descended into nastiness or awkwardness. Jennifer Davis sang Elsa in the Royal Opera recent new production of Wagner's Lohengrin [see my review], so this was no light-weight account of the role but Davis brought lightness and flexibility to her performance as well as admirable depth of tone. And she was well matched by Hanna Hipp's engaging Hänsel, so that there were none of the balance problems incipient in the opera when youthful voices collide with Humperdinck's neo-Wagnerian orchestrations.

McDonald's vision of the forest in Act Two moved us firmly away from naturalism and into the world of fairytale, as his rather dark yet stylish forest was peopled with animals and magical beings, including a striking insect which slowly crawled up McDonald's false proscenium, a fox with a spade and a deer with a gun. Haegee Lee was unrecognisable as the charmingly gnome-like Sandman who was joined by a fairy who seemed to be the presiding genius of the forest.

The dream pantomime at the end of the act always presents a challenge for directors, and few try to implement directly the stage directions with the vision of fourteen angels, though here McDonald wittily gave reference to this when the Sandman and the Fairy placed strings of cut-out angels above the sleeping children's heads. Instead the forest was suddenly filled with characters from other fairytales by Brothers Grimm, all interacting in unsuual ways so that Little Red Riding Hood stops Snow White from eating the apple. A charming idea, but it rather liked the cathartic emotional climax which this scene needs.

Act Three introduced us to Christina Gansch's delicious Dew Fairy with her watering can, a lovely cameo. The witch's house, when it appeared was firmly in the haunted house category, evoking either the motel in Psycho or perhaps the house belonging to the Adams Family. It certainly did not look like the classic gingerbread house, though there was a giant cherry on the top.

Gerhard Siegel made a cosily characterful witch, transforming from a dirndl-clad Hausfrau into something of a mad-scientist in charge of the complex chocolate-making apparatus contained within the witch's house. Siegel sang well, and if you have to have Rosine Leckermaul played by a man, then this was perfectly admirable though I still prefer having her sung by a mezzo-soprano (that said, the one time I heard a counter-tenor singing the role was memorable indeed). The scene was delightful rather than disturbing or scary, and the climax was very much the moment when Rosine was pushed into the chocolate vat, its subsequent explosion and the witch's reappearance as a chocolate figure!

The children at the end, all chocolate covered, were played by members of the ROH Youth Opera Company.

Sebastian Weigle drew a richly romantic account of the score from the Royal Opera House Orchestra, making the music form a fine part of the overall fairytale.

I have to confess, that I rather prefer my productions of Hänsel und Gretel to have something of a psychological edge to them, but if you want pure fairytale then this production does it with  imagination but yet I would have liked something more.

This review also appears in OperaToday.com


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  • Christmas in Leipzig: Solomon's Knot in Bach, Schelle & Kuhnau (★★★★) - concert review
  • Winter Fragments: Chamber music by Michael Berkeley (★★★½) - CD review
  • Intimate delight: 18th century chamber cantatas from Tim Mead, Louise Alder & Arcangelo - (★★★★½)  concert review
  • A new record label, a new disc: I chat to Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka about bel canto and more  - interview
  • French Collection: 18th century harpsichord music (★★★½) - CD review
  • Truly scrumptious: the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor in music for Advent (★★★★) - concert review
  • Late-Edwardian fairytale: Stanford's The Travelling Companion  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Profoundly beautiful: Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Last Man Standing: Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • One crazy day: Jonathan Dove on his new opera Marx in London which premieres at Theater Bonn  - interview
  • Landscapes of the mind: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's Aequa (★★★½) - CD review
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