Hansel and Gretel is a strange opera in many ways. It started life as a song cycle, and was later expanded by Humperdeinck and his sister into a full length opera. Consequently, the score is peppered with the pretty tunes of the original songs linked by what has more than once been described as Wagner-lite. Then there is the subject matter: a children’s fairy tale from the collection of the Brothers Grimm, so no romantic interest of the boy-meets-girl variety. Anyone who is familiar with the stories of Strewelpeter will know that German literature for the moral edification of children pulls no punches and yet Humperdinck chose the most anodyne of the softened down versions which were current, and softened it down some more.
The Wagner-lite epithet is a bit harsh. What keeps this single Humperdinck opera (he only managed two) in the repertoire is the glorious music. The tunes are irresistable and all the music is lush, chromatic, romantic, and beautifully scored. Humperdinck was something of an amanuensis to Wagner and although in thrall to the great man not afraid to have a go himself. The piece was immediately successful and popular, and has remained in the repertoire ever since the first performance in 1893.
Staging the opera is a challenge, though. With two transvestite roles (Hansel is sung by a mezzo and the Witch by a tenor) the piece is in danger of descending into travesty or burlesque. What Richard Jones chose to do in his 1998 production was to go back to the original versions Grimms tales which were dark, visceral, unsettiling and violent. Canabilism and dismemberment were common themes in the original versions that they collected. After all, if you want to influence the behaviour of children frighten the life out of them (pace all those grisly safety films for kids about electric pylons and trains and the like of the 1970’s).
Of course he couldn’t actually change the plot of Adelheid Wette’s libretto, but he could, in collaboration with designer John Macfarlane, create an atmosphere of threat and menace. In the first act the misery of poverty and acute hunger is graphically portrayed. The dreams of the sleeping children in the second act are nightmarish and surreal. And although there is a comic feel to the action in the Witch’s kitchen in the third act, the presence of mummified children and the pretty graphic burning alive of the witch are unsettling.
This highly effective take on the story takes us to another dimension. I noticed a number of quite young children had been brought to this performance and wondered if their parents would have been aware of quite how dark this production would be. No matter. Musically this is a good introduction to opera for youngsters, and they would have delighted in the horror and gore, and no doubt relished quite the most creepy Sandman you will ever see.
The singing and acting in this revival are uniformly good, not least the chorus of children in the third act. But the major bonus is the presence of Lothar Koenigs in the pit. The richness and sonority of the playing he extracts from the orchestra is quite miraculous. Professional orchestral players are famous for their studied “just another gig” insouciance, but there was no disguising the sense that they knew they had produced something very special as they filed out at the end of the concluding music of the second act. This is as good as anything Wagner wrote.