Given its durability and wide appeal, one might expect Hänsel und Gretel to have had a regular place in the Royal Opera’s repertoire but, astonishingly, they haven’t performed it since 1937. Now it’s back, with directing team Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser.
Humperdinck’s opera is no pantomime, a tradition which expunges the darker sides of myth, but, as with the Grimm Brothers story it draws on, swirling archetypal situations and psychological states make many layers of interpretation possible. Caurier and Leiser, the directors responsible for last year’s Cenerentola, opt for an ultimately nightmarish and macabre vision.
Some telling touches aside, there’s little to surprise before the interval. It’s good to see Thomas Allen in a testing character role as the children’s drunken, but caring, father and Elizabeth Connell gives a vivid portrayal of the self-centred mother. Extreme hunger may not be an idyllic beginning but Hänsel und Gretel’s response to family poverty is typically child-like: they play, bicker, break things and defy their parent’s wishes. It could be any family home at any time.
Once banished from the house and sent into the dark wood, though, they are forced into an encounter with the darkest aspects of humanity. The title characters (played with convincing gusto and tremendous musicality by Angelika Kirchschlager and Diana Damrau) undergo a harrowing process of growing-up.
Nature itself is reasonably benevolent, as they survive a night in the wild. There’s a sense of danger for the children lost in the woods but in fact they’re cushioned by a magical aura of safety. A slightly grotesque little Sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza), half-puppet, half-human, wafts them to sleep and twinkling guardian angels surround them. The sleep sequence, in which they dream of a loving home environment and sandwiches, stays just the right side of tweeness.
The Dew Fairy (Anita Watson) in Barbara Cartland crinolines seems hardly dressed for cleaning but, as she tidies up by magic, her matching rubber gloves never stain. From this whimsy, we are plunged into an altogether less comfortable place with the introduction of an all too-human witch.
Anja Silja is a raucous be-cardiganed old lady on a zimmer frame and once her ruses to lure the children into her realm of promised plenty have succeeded, she throws off all pretence to show us we’re in the inner sanctum of a serial child killer. Child corpses hang in a huge fridge and this evil old bag has developed an industrial solution to the gingerbread question, with two huge ovens that have unavoidable associations of mass killing.
It’s all quite disturbing. The children (from the excellent Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Tiffin Children’s Chorus), freed from their gingerbread cocoons, flee for cover on the approach of adults (in this case, the parents who mean them no harm) and there are certainly topical resonances, with the media too often reporting tales of abuse, imprisonment and neglect.
Colin Davis presides over a sumptuous account of the score, drawing out its Wagnerian undertones. Apart from Silja, who is somewhat past her best, singing is world-class, setting a high standard for Cast B who perform on Thursday.
Humperdinck’s tuneful score charms but the overall impression of this show is a lingering feeling of disquiet. Even the gleeful cannibalisation of the witch-cake by the children is unsettling. Hardly typical Christmas fare, you might be advised to leave younger children at home.
Hänsel und Gretel will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 on 16 December 2008 at 7.30pm and will be broadcast on BBC2 on Christmas Day at 7.30pm. It will also be relayed live to cinemas on Tuesday 16 December at 7.30pm