A grim production of Hansel and Gretel

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 1/8/2008
Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

The music of “Hansel and Gretel” is quite charming, and, to risk a hackneyed word,  quite beautiful. It would be a good guess, however, that after a few hearings one would choose to listen to it only occasionally, as is not the case with another fairy tale opera, Die Zauberflöte. Nevertheless, Humperdinck was served well by the cast of the Metropolitan Opera performance of January 8th. I have noticed over the years that the finest singers often do their near-perfect best in lighter repertoire: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing Giuditta, Nicolai Gedda in Le Postillion de Longumeau, or Lotte Lehmann singing Leoplodi’s melancholy Wien, sterbende Märchenstadt, come to mind. Perhaps part of the reason for such excellence might be a feeling in the artist that there is less to prove, and as a consequence, a greater ease.

  Alice Coote as Hansel, Christine Schäfer as Gretel

Alice Coote as Hansel, Christine Schäfer as Gretel

At any rate, the entire cast of the Met’s 244th performance seemed indeed at their ease, and at their best. Wonderful Alice Coote who sang, Cherubino so brilliantly last season, was an endearing, believable Hansel, even when carrying out some rather preposterous stage directions. One wondered, for example, whether she was shadow boxing, or break-dancing in the first act dance sequence. Her exemplary English diction contrasted with that of German-born Christine Schäfer, who sometimes sang “theh” instead of “the” and “gled” rather than “glad,” but her singing of Gretel was so exquisite that one felt charmed rather than put off by such inaccuracies, especially as it was nearly impossible, by virtue of the vast hall and the clumsy translation, to understand the greater part of the text. The ensemble singing of these perfectly matched voices was remarkably fine throughout, especially in the second act prayer of the fourteen angels.

Rosalind Plowright, whom I first heard many years ago in Eve Queller’s concert version of Die Liebe der Danae has lost some vocal luster, but her reading of Gertrude, the mother, was craftsmanly and compelling, even when she too, was carrying out some rather preposterous stage directions. Alan Held, who played her husband, burst on stage with a huge and hearty tone. Once again, it occurred to me as in the case of Gedda and Lehman ‘would he sing with such consummate ease if it were the music of a more serious and dramatic nature?’ At any rate, his voice was abundant opulent.

  Hansel and Gretel Act 2, Dream pantomine

Hansel and Gretel Act 2, Dream pantomine

One of the theatrical and vocal highlights of the evening was tenor Adam Klein’s performance of the Witch, originally scored for mezzo-soprano. He did not hide the beauty of his freely produced voice, but with his gestures and comic timing brought aboutthe authentic fairy tale tone of the opera, in spite of a grim Weimar Era pall cast over it by the producer and set designer.

Of course it is often an admirable thing to be inventive. When one considers a Bach fugue however, it is inventive indeed, but subject to stringent musical canon which stands as a touchstone of its quality. Producers and directors are subject to rules too. They are subject to the wishes of the composer. When in the dream pantomime, Humperdinck requires fourteen angels to “descend from a staircase in light garments, two at a time,” this precludes the substitution of fourteen gigantic Macy’s Parade balloons representing sinister cooks. Following the appearance of these monsters, the children dutifully sang about the angels that never appeared. In the third act Humperdinck requires a witch’s house made of gingerbread and chocolate. One cannot substitute a flat sporting an illustration of a hideous open mouth with crooked teeth and a cake on its tongue. Even the fine acting of Hansel and Gretel became difficult to believe as they nibbled away at a house that was not there. As well, during the opening prelude full of forest sounds, birdcalls, and folk tunes we stare at a crude painting of an empty plate. The same plate appears at the beginning of the last act, now smeared with blood, evoking nervous laughter from the audience. Most objectionable of all was Gertrude’s lumbering across the stage and vomiting into an aluminum sink while her husband sings of the witch’s haunts.

Hansel and Gretel, which was advertised as “a family treat for children eight and above” is not a politico-social commentary of Weil or Eisler. It is a fairy tale opera with its more violent aspects tempered at the request of Humperdinck’s sister, Adelaide, who wrote the libretto. Although the children are poor, both composer and librettist stress that Hansel and Gretel have the dew fairy, the sandman, and all the wonders of nature to fill their young lives with enchantment. Nature, however, is obliterated here through the producer’s and designer’s self-declared immunity to the wishes of the composer. Even the forest is a room made of bushes compressed into blocks comprising walls, with a ceiling from which hangs a chandelier made of antlers. 

In this year 2008 children eight and above are ceaselessly inundated with the ugly: violent video games, violent music, violent movies, violent television shows, and news of a violent world. By contrast, a fairy tale opera, presented as the composer and librettist intended -without being degraded by a clever producer and set designer - might be a fine and beautiful thing. It might be a fine and beautiful thing to let those children eight and above repossess their childhood for two hours and twenty minutes.