Hansel and Gretel; märchenspiel (fairy tale) in three acts, music by Engelbert Humperdinck, libretto in German by Adelheid Wette, after the fairy tale Hänsel und Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, directed and designed by Antony McDonald, orchestra conducted by Sebastian Weigle, Royal Opera, Thursday 13th December 2018, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Hansel and Gretel was premiered at Weimar on 23rd December 1893, with Richard Strauss, no less, conducting. As Antony McDonald observes, it is ubiquitous in German opera houses at this time of the year (Opera interview, Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, Dec 9th 2018). McDonald’s new production is conceived as “an enchanting piece” for families, particularly for “first-time opera goers” (Official Programme). Several commentators think that it should therefore be sung in English.
This latest version of the fairy tale opera has its sinister side. The opening setting is ostensibly idyllic. We behold a mountain chalet with an oven and a chimney emitting smoke. It is supper time. Hansel and Gretel and their parents Gertrud and Peter are gathered round the kitchen table. The Little White House and the Little Red House at Birkenau, former farmhouses, came to mind. As Rudolf Hoess, the Commandant at Auschwitz-Birkenau, recalled in his autobiography, “Hundreds of men and women in the full bloom of life walked all unsuspecting to their death in the gas chambers under the blossom-laden fruit trees of the orchard.” Hansel and Gretel, as Julia Pascal has aptly commented, “…is a tale that seems to foreshadow the Third Reich”. For it tells of “abandoned and lost hungry children who fill their bellies with the seductive sweets of she who [would] kill them…” (Pop-Up Opera, www.londongrip.co.uk, 2017). In the event, the “Nibble Witch” is burned alive in her own oven.
In the original version by the Brothers Grimm, Hansel and Gretel are the children of Peter and his first wife. This fact lends itself to an interpretation from evolutionary psychology, namely, that it is plausible that a step mother would abandon two children in a forest when there is a famine and they are not her kin. However, Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette, who wrote the libretto, toned down the more disturbing elements of the story, including this salient detail.
The sets, notably in Act III in the forest, are inventive, with a bat, a giant moth, plus a cavalcade of fairy tale creatures, including a wolf and a fox, who look out for the children. The Witch’s gingerbread house is modelled on the Bates’ residence in Psycho.
For this reviewer, the stand out performance, both from a singing and acting perspective, was by tenor Gerhard Siegel, as the witch. As if to emphasise Humperdinck’s debt to Wagner, he recently played Mime in RO’s Ring cycle, although, as Nigel Simeone notes, Richard Strauss and Felix Mendelssohn were additional influences (see “The Birth of a Masterpiece”, Official Programme). Michaela Schuster, as Gertrud, is another Wagner stalwart. There were also compelling ballet sequences. In the pit, conductor Sebastian Weigle made an impressive Royal Opera debut.
On the opening night, a contingent of children in the audience were clearly “bewitched” by this seasonal concoction. They were frightened but, happily, not too frightened.
Not all Grimm fairy tales are comfortable reading; e.g. the disgusting “Jew in a thicket”.
But Louise Murphy and Lisa Goldstein adapted Hansel & Gretel to the Holocaust, and I do not think they are alone. Julia Pascal here quoted has done something similar to the Merchant of Venice. Is there no limit to this process, however, along with anachronistic colour and ludicrous gender casting? The “political correction” of literature, art, entertainment, and history itself, is becoming as ominous as it extensive.
And read again the quotation from the Hoess “autobiography”. Does it strike you as a credible description of events, or rather as a poetic touch? There is another view of the two “coloured farm-houses” outlined by Carlo Mattogno, “The Discovery of ‘Bunker 1’….”, online. Students of the Holocaust can judge for themselves whether there is any validity in the arguments presented there ON THIS PARTICULAR POINT.
There is no doubt about the WW2 Nazi “war against the Jews” or innumerable camp deaths. What I find troubling is the modern political “weaponization” of the “six million” cliche: one must be careful how to say this – as my opinion was cited by a “Daily Mail” smear-campaign earlier this year presenting me as an “evil”, “malign”, “racist”, “white supremacist”, &c (without any right of reply, of course).