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Hansel (Alice Coote) and Gretel (Christine Schaefer) [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
16 Jan 2008

A New Hansel und Gretel at the Met

Wagner’s all-conquering chic made apocalyptic music-dramas drawn from folklore the ideal of the nationalistic era; every serious opera composer of the time felt obliged to attempt something in that line.

Engelbert Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel

Hansel: Alice Coote; Gretel: Christine Schaefer; Gertrude: Rosalind Plowright; Peter: Alan Held; Witch: Adam Klein; Sandman: Sasha Cooke; Dew Fairy: Lisette Oropesa. Conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Production by Richard Jones. Sets and Costumes by John Macfarlane. English translation by David Pountney.

Above: Hansel (Alice Coote) and Gretel (Christine Schaefer)
All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera


Ironically, the only one of these faux-Wagnerian epics that became (and remained) a popular hit was Humperdinck’s 1893 setting of a Grimm fairy tale, which achieved the perfect union of tunes kids could appreciate (and even sing themselves — he wrote them for his sister’s children) and orchestral method that savors of Meistersinger. Hansel und Gretel makes use of Wagnerian counterpoint without all those embarrassing Wagnerian emotions, both immoral and illegal — Hansel and Gretel do not go running joyously into an amorous night.

_MG_7193.pngGertrude (Rosalind Plowright) and Peter (Alan Held)

In the present era, when children imagine themselves too sophisticated for fairy-tale kitsch (though they still love it in the right circumstances, and the old Met production was perfect of its kind), when they are raised on sarcastic cartoon banter and an After-School Special level of squalor, it seems that the presentation of Hansel und Gretel must modernize too. Hence the new Met staging, borrowed from the Welsh National Opera with a number of Brit trappings, such as a Witch in drag out of panto. The titular children, when we meet them, resemble shell-shocked raggedy dolls, listless and starving on oversized chairs in a low-rent kitchen. Later they fall asleep in a forest that resembles a very large dining room (terrific scary-forest wallpaper out of a Maurice Sendak tale and nightmarish waiters with branches for heads), dreaming not of angels but of Pillsbury doughboy chefs. The Witch lives in an industrial kitchen suitable to a summer camp and appears (in Adam Klein’s delicious performance) to be doing Julia Child and Dame Edna in tandem. Papa probably drinks and Mama is haggard from overwork (we are plainly dealing with latchkey kids here), and the dreams are not of Godly salvation but of gaudy desserts.

_MG_5809.pngHansel (Alice Coote), Gretel (Christine Schaefer) and Chefs/Angels

There’s a lot of good fun on the stage — what kid won’t snicker at a grown man in drag? — but will this do for holiday resurrection year upon year, as the fairy tale staging did? Or will once or twice do it? And will the kids have nightmares from those tree-waiters? I did. A friend of mine encountered a subway car full of kids after one of the special matinees of this production, and much as they’d loved the witch, the enormous machine-propelled Mouth that invites our heroes into her house was not their idea of fun.

_MG_7477.pngThe Witch (Adam Klein)

There is a lot of good Wagnerian melody coming from the orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski and a lot of good singing from the soloists, and the staging ideas, if they don’t all make sense, pass the time entertainingly.

_MG_0097.pngThe Sandman (Sasha Cooke), Hansel (Alice Coote) and Gretel (Christine Schaefer)

The piece is performed in an updated translation that sometimes fights with the old-fashioned music, and Christine Schaeffer as Gretel, the only singer in the cast who was not a native English-speaker, had some problems getting her words across — but that’s what subtitles are for. She and Alice Coote (a fine Sesto and Octavian — will I ever see the charming Ms. Coote in a girl’s role?) produce clear, reliably sexless vocal lines — these two proto-Wagnerian characters must carry over a Wagnerian orchestra with apparent childish ease — and they had fun mingling the demands of the libretto with moves borrowed from modern video. Rosalind Plowright looked like a harried denizen of Coronation Street, but the mother’s role is by no means a simple one, and she sang it effectively. Alan Held filled the theater with impressive vigor as the father — it was no surprise after this performance to learn he is preparing Wotan for the D.C. Ring.

_MG_5589.pngThe Dew Fairy (Lisette Oropesa)

Lisette Oropesa sang the Dew Fairy sweetly in hotel chambermaid drag. In short, the piece came off, the Witch got her madcap laughs (we all liked the paper sleeves she placed on Hansel’s wrists and ankles before baking), and there was joy to share. What more does one ask of this opera? Magic?

Of genuine magic there was only one moment all night: the aria of the Sandman, as sung by Sasha Cooke of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Program: a light, clear voice, seemingly tiny but produced so that it easily filled the house and fell on each ear like fairy dust, a subtle staging that was, for once, not an intrusion but a rare visit from the atmosphere of Grimm to a corrupted world.

John Yohalem

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