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.