The Royal Opera – Hänsel und Gretel

Hänsel und Gretel – Märchenspiel in three acts to a libretto by Adelheid Wette after the fairytale by Jacob Ludwig & Wilhelm Carl Grimm [sung in German with English surtitles]

Gretel – Ailish Tynan
Hänsel – Christine Rice
Gertrud (Mother) – Yvonne Howard
Peter (Father) – Sir Thomas Allen
Sandman – Madeleine Pierard
Dew Fairy – Anna Siminska
Witch – Jane Henschel

Tiffin Boys’ Choir
Tiffin Children’s Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Rory Macdonald

Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier – Directors
Elaine Kidd – Revival director
Christian Fenouillat – Set designs
Agostino Cavalca – Costume design
Christophe Forey – Lighting

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 31 December, 2010
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Christine Rice as Hänsel & Ailish Tynan as Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel, Royal Opera, December 2010). Photograph: Johan PerssonSir Charles Mackerras was to have conducted (it is surprising how often that is still being written) these performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairytale opera “Hänsel und Gretel”. Sir Charles’s last concert in London included extracts from this very opera and one wonders: what might have been. Well, life goes on, and a new generation is ready: the capable, and youthful, Rory Macdonald led this revival, this New Year’s Eve matinee being the fourth of eight performances.

As revived by Elaine Kidd this outing lacked a lot of the essential childish interplay between the eponymous duo that the original directors brought to bear: their playful banter in Act One’s bedroom scene (parents are out, chores not done, and some food has been discovered) was tedious, and Hänsel especially lacked boyish verve. The two walked through most of the opera, to its detriment – it was almost as though Kidd did not know what to do with the singers. Visually brother and sister worked well: the boyish-looking Hänsel of Christine Rice towered above Ailish Tynan’s whimsical Gretel.

When first seen in December 2008, and aired on BBC Television over Christmas that year, there was much commentary on “disturbing scenes” within the Witch’s house. It is pleasing to note that these aspects have not been diminished: good fairytales are not all-saccharine confections, and the sight of hanged children in the Witch’s larder before they are baked and turned into gingerbread-men is an essential horror ingredient – the pay-off is, of course, a happy ending, and everyone is satisfied (except the Witch!).

Ailish Tynan as Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel, Royal Opera, December 2010). Photograph: Johan PerssonOverall the staging is serviceable: Act One (the children’s bedroom) successfully concentrates the action within its walls; the forest of Act Two, where the children wander and encounter the Sandman and Dew Fairy, and where they dream of angels, is skilfully designed to draw in the audience’s focus; and Act Three is the smartest, mixing the themes of the opera as a cook would with her ingredients, offering a colourful transition from the subdued forest – plenty of eye-candy throughout.

Musically, there was much to marvel at, too. Under the confident Macdonald, Humperdinck’s glorious and inventive score – he was Wagner’s assistant at Bayreuth and even wrote nine bars of music for “Parsifal” when a scene change was taking too long – weaved its seductive magic: the Prelude, a foretaste of most of the opera’s material, mixed its hymnal and delirious qualities assuredly. The other orchestral set-pieces are the ‘Hexenrit’ (Witch’s Ride), Act Two’s ‘dream-sequence’ and the Prelude to Act Three. In each, although they elicited individual character, Macdonald was driven, revelling in the orchestration, which the orchestra made dance.

As singers, Rice and Tynan were well-matched and they know how to sing together. Tynan’s Gretel was often beautiful, full of optimism, communicating the good that she feels for her sometime-wayward brother. Excepting the Witch, the other roles are fairly small, though here each found memorable characterisation: Sir Thomas Allen fashioned Father as happy and gregarious; the Mother of Yvonne Howard, ably sung, had the put-upon air of exasperation; the caring Sandman of Madeleine Pierard cast a magical spell over proceedings; and the Dew Fairy of Anna Siminska, here cleaning the forest with a spray-bottle, was charming.

The real treat, however, was Jane Henschel’s Witch: appearing firstly as a wanderer with a Zimmerframe, she coaxes the children, and then takes devilish delight in showing them what is in store by displaying her here’s-what-I-made-earlier confectionaries. Henschel demonstrated what a consummate performer she is: stage-presence, powerful and clear singing combined with black-humour made hers a complete account – I loved it, and would have followed her into that house knowing the danger!

For some reason, “Hänsel und Gretel” seems to have an (undeserved) reputation for being a lightweight. It is not, and this production (as well as this opera itself) should always be caught when the chance presents itself.

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