Drawing on the tradition of his father for innovative productions, Johannes Felsenstein has created a memorable staging of Hänsel und Gretel, which uses historic footage from the 1930s containing images of hungry children in breadlines and other, similar impoverished situations, to set the tone. The footage fades into the opening scene, which takes its graphic cues from that period for the costumes and decor. Not set in some undefined, romanticized period of German peasant life, this modern setting of Hänsel und Gretel provides tangible visual cues to establish the sense of poverty which is essential to understanding some aspects of the plot. The comments of Suzanne Schultz, the principal dramatic adviser of the Anhaltisches Theater Dessay found in her essay about the opera in the booklet that accompanies the DVD are particularly relevant in this regard:
The memories of one’s own childhood conjured up by the music is, at the same time, an encounter with a cultural past. By returning to archetypes and reviving our cultural inheritance, the opera not only pinpoints the ambience and problems of its own time. It also throws up questions that go far beyond the twentieth century and remain highly charged issues even today. Hänsel und Gretel is a work that inspires us to approach with a sense of remembrance and reflection with a conscience and a view to the past, those who are weakest and whose burden is greatest in times of hardship - the world’s children.
To this end Felsenstein also uses film later in his production, such as when the father describes the witch, with images of tanks from the Second World War and short battle scenes create a different effect than intended when placed in the context of this opera. In this context, the images imply that Hitler is the witch, which also suggests that the witch is more powerful than depicted in Bechstein’s fairytale, thus contributing some eerie connotations to the line about the witch throwing children into ovens, a connection that Humperdinck could not have imagined in his conception of the opera. Similarly, the idea of hunting the witch becomes even starker when the caricature of Uncle Sam coincides with the father’s statement to his wife that it’s important for both of them to seek out the witch (“Wir wollen ja beide zum Hexenritt”). This staging contributes an element of surrealism to the story and makes this staging into something more than a fairytale, especially with the images of riots and firebombed cities during the prelude to the second act. Still unseen at this point, the witch for this production is much more powerful than found in other, more conventional settings of Hänsel und Gretel. At the same time, it also sets off the childish behavior of the children, unaware of the dangerous world all around them. While the staging involves anachronisms that detract from a sense of authenticity, as do some of the attempts at realism, like the depiction of the father’s drunkenness.
The conclusion, when the other children the witch enchanted are returned to life is effective stagecraft for the opera house. Presented on video, though, it loses something in the visual translation, since the camera must move into the audience and blur the scenic world confined to this point on the stage, and shift to focus in the theater. The blue-toned images of the children approaching the proscenium from the theater call attention to the spatial differences, which are further accentuated by the shot of the conducting leading the children’s chorus. Yet the ending of the scene works well, with the children depicted as working their own magic on Hänsel and Gretel, which leads well into the final chorus and the conclusion of the opera.
This production of Hänsel und Gretel is also of interest because it is based on the new critical edition of the score by Hans-Josef Irmen and published by Schott. As familiar as this score is to many audiences, it is useful to have a performance based on the recently vetted edition, which lends authority to this already fine reading of the score. That stated, it is difficult to account for the decision of having the singer who portrays the father to take on the role of the witch. While this makes sense in the context of the production, which has the parents looking on as the children awaken, and then tease the children by singing the witch’s famous line about who is nibbling at her gingerbread house. From that point the father dons the kerchief (presumably of the mother) to carry out the scene with the witch. In this sense, the fantasy is part of make-believe in the home, and not part of the fairytale world found in the story as rendered by Bechstein or the Grimm Brothers. As stagecraft, this works, but in terms of the musical score Ludmil Kuntschew has used a head voice in various passages. Traditionally the role is sung by a tenor or, in some houses, the soprano who plays the mother, so the choice of the baritone here departs from practice.
The two women who portray the children, Hänsel by Sabine Noack and Gretel by Cornelia Marschall, are quite effective in their portrayals of the two characters. In addition to their fine command of the music, they evoke the children physically in their interactions with each other. Even in the comparatively plainer setting of the children’s passage through the forest, the reactions of Marchall as Gretel give a sense of elements she alone can see, and thus play upon the attentive viewer. Noack has captured the mannerisms of the boy Hänsel nicely, and at times it is difficult to imagine that she is playing a boy. As their parents, Kuntschew is convincing as the father, and Alexandra Petersamer delivers the role of the mother well.
All in all, though, this thought-provoking staging of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel brings into the work associations which attempt to intensify the dramatic situations. The anachronisms from the Third Reich make this staging perhaps less accessible to younger audiences, who might be need some explanation of the newsreel footage that underscores some scenes. A regular part of the opera repertoire at many houses, since its premiere on 23 December 1893, Hänsel und Gretel retains its association with Yuletide celebrations, particularly in the final scenes, but this production contains allusions to other elements in German culture to set it apart from other, more conventional presentations. Yet enough traditional elements remain in the production to remind viewers of the associations of this work with Christmas, and some of the picturesque tableaux are visually effective, not only at the conclusion of the work, but also in the tender scene as the children fall asleep at the end of the second act, with the angels around them and the parents tucking the children into their beds. As strong as the visual dimension is in this production, the musical elements are well executed throughout, an aspect of opera that must be solidly in place to anchor any production.