When Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leisers production of Hänsel und Gretel appeared at the Royal Opera House in 2008 it was the first time that the piece had been staged there since 1937. Now on its first revival, it already seems destined to become the operatic equivalent of Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker which the House revives nearly every Christmas.
The production is successful, however, precisely because it never tries to be your average festive treat. It is a multi-faceted affair that introduces an intelligent dose of playfulness, while never shying away from the plot’s more macabre elements. In turn, it is impossible not to respond with heightened emotions, whether that be a huge grin as we watch Hänsel and Gretel disobeying their Mothers instructions to work hard, or abject horror as we see the Witch in all her chilling glory.
The tone is established by the Expressionistic set. Hänsel and Gretel’s bedroom contains sharp angled walls that slope outwards, the door protruding back into the room. The whole area appears to float like a mosaic within the larger set, giving the children a space that they can realistically fill. In the woods, a box-like set sees flat planes of trees jutting in at different angles, while the Witch’s cottage features menacing industrial sized ovens and a freezer with children hanging in it (this is not a production for the very young). If the angelic squirrels with flashing wings who protect the children as they sleep push the charm just a little too far, the subsequent image of the children staring at their parents so close and yet so far is still highly affecting.
Two years ago Angelika Kirchschlager, Diana Damrau, Alice Coote and Camilla Tilling (Casts A and B respectively) all set a ridiculously high benchmark for the children, and it is one that Christine Rice and Ailish Tynan very nearly live up to. They have not captured the mannerisms of ten-year olds as successfully as some I have seen, but they are certainly willing to indulge in playing children. If their fully-fledged voices are not sufficiently adjusted for the purposes of characterising youths, it does mean that we receive a strong sound throughout the evening. This is particularly apparent in their performance of the Lullaby, where beautiful singing is far more important than child-like mannerisms.
It is also a delight to watch old hands revelling in character roles. Thomas Allen booms magnificently as the Father, and his actions see his body adopt angles that perfectly complement those of the set. Jane Henschel is extraordinary as the Witch, her voice rising to produce some wondrous sounds as she smears a child in cream and bungs him in the oven. She even reveals the Witch’s manipulative ways during the curtain call. As she receives some (good natured) boos her look is one of how could you possibly think I was anything but a sweet little lady?. It is also enjoyable to see the children (the Tiffin Boys Choir and Tiffin Childrens Choir) singing so well, and clearly revelling in their direction to behave like gluttons at the end.
Charles Mackerras, who sadly died in July, was set to conduct this opera. In the event, this year’s production is dedicated to him, and Rory Macdonald captures a sound that seems very similar to that which the great man himself might have produced. He extracts both a virtuoso classical sound and the necessary playfulness from the orchestra, making the Overture in particular a thing of joy in strict musical terms, never mind the excitement and sense of anticipation that it always generates.