HUMPERDINCK Hansel and Gretel
The Vienna State Opera performed Hänsel und Gretel a few months after the end of the Second World War at the Volksoper, one of its temporary homes. It was revived there several times, but this production from November 2015 is the first to be staged at the company’s rebuilt home on the Ringstrasse. It is a notable success – clear-eyed and lovingly conducted – but one that you might find doesn’t quite tug at the heart-strings.
It was an inspired idea to engage Adrian Noble and Anthony Ward as director and designer. The story comes from the brothers Grimm, but the setting is London in the early 1890s, the time of the opera’s composition. The curtain rises during the Overture to reveal a family celebrating Christmas: mother, father, four children – and Granny, liberally helping herself to the sherry. The father puts on a magic lantern show, after which they leave the room. ‘Hänsel’ and ‘Gretel’ return to play with the lantern, walk upstage and peer through a window. This turns out to be at the back of Peter the broom-maker’s cottage: the cottage revolves and the opera begins. The various sets include a circular frame, carrying forward the idea of images projected by the magic lantern.
Adults playing children: always a problem. Daniela Sindram and Ileana Tonca horse about in Act 1 with as much conviction as one could reasonably expect. Janina Baechle is a formidable Gertrud, while Adrian Eröd doesn’t overdo Peter’s tipsiness. The mood darkens in Act 2, when the children are lost in the forest. The Evening Prayer is exquisitely phrased by Christian Thielemann and beautifully sung, too, with a video projection of an amusingly sleepy man-in-the-moon in the background. There is no ladder from heaven for the Dream Pantomime: instead of the 14 angels, children with balloons appear and the two Victorian children ascend in a chariot. This scene, and the preceding Sandman’s song, seems to me to be lacking in magic.
Michaela Schuster, fearsomely bespectacled, has a fine old time as the Witch, without resorting to caricature or ugly sounds (except when casting her spell or cackling like Mime in Siegfried). At the end, the chariot descends and ‘Hänsel’ and ‘Gretel’ greet their opera counterparts. The subtitles seek to match the rhyming couplets of the German: not a good idea, when it leads to phrases like ‘grim-looking wight’. The booklet includes a chapter-list and interviews with Thielemann and Noble. A few reservations, then, but this a fine production that will be especially enjoyed by those who recoil from kitsch.