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Lenneke Ruiten as Gretel and Kate Lindsey as Hänsel [Photo by Marco Borggreve]
05 Dec 2015

A Heap of Utterly Brilliant Rubbish: Hänsel und Gretel at Dutch National Opera

A fairy tale that looks like clay animation come to life, terrifies and enchants, and rakes up heaps of middle class guilt—this is Dutch National Opera’s new production of Hänsel und Gretel, set on the most attractive rubbish tip you will ever come across.

A Heap of Utterly Brilliant Rubbish: Hänsel und Gretel at Dutch

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Lenneke Ruiten as Gretel and Kate Lindsey as Hänsel

Photos by Marco Borggreve


Engelbert Humperdinck’s librettist and sister, Adelheid Wette, dethorned the story of Hansel and Gretel as much as she could, making the murderous parents fallible but caring, and dispatching fairy creatures to watch over the lost siblings. The witch is still a cannibal, but she is the single embodiment of danger. Even the hunger beast is tamed early on, when the father comes home laden with groceries after some lucrative broom-selling. Director Lotte de Beer puts the scariness back in by turning the tale into the escapist fantasy of a group of street children who scurry around a refuse dump like vermin, sniffing glue. Instead of angels, they dream of parents tucking them into soft, clean beds. They are terrified, not by the subconscious fear of abandonment and parental infanticide, but by real dangers—neglect, indifference and abuse. Ms De Beer’s concept indicts the world for failing to protect so many of its young while celebrating children’s imagination and resilience.

H_G_NL_2.pngKate Lindsey as Hänsel and Lenneke Ruiten as Gretel

To escape their harsh existence, the street children turn cardboard boxes into doll’s houses and fashion figurines out of earth and litter. Stage-wide video projections zoom in on their busy hands. The figurines become the singers, starting with Hansel and Gretel in a giant corn flakes box. It takes a while to get used to the singers’ latex masks and lumpy costumes. However, with regular reminders of the child puppeteers, the Hansel and Gretel “dolls” grow more affectingly human in each consecutive scene. Sets and costumes, fabulously lit by David Finn, combine the magical with the sinister. The midden in Act I provides the plastic debris for a colourful streamer forest. It is then transformed into a glistening mound of candy wrappers in lieu of the gingerbread house. The closer the children get to the Witch’s cottage, the prettier their surroundings become, and the more ominous. The Sandman’s dream dust is a crushed Valium pill. As the feathered Dew Fairy, he puts on a menacing, skeletal bird’s head. His motive for drugging the children is revealed when he turns up at the Witch’s cottage as her accomplice. Conductor Marc Albrecht ratcheted up the horror with a dungeon-dark take on the score. He consistently gave dusky orchestral colours the upper hand, with ravishing results, and expanded the symphonic breadth of the music as far as it can go. The Witch’s Ride was so ferocious, it sounded like a full-blown Witches’ Sabbath. He also created moments of hushed, spacious lyricism, most notably during the Evening Prayer. The Netherlands Philharmonic was in wonderful form, alternating full-force mettle with glowing transparency.

H_G_NL_3.pngCharlotte Margiono as Mutter Gertrud, Thomas Oliemans as Vater Peter, Kate Lindsey as Hänsel, Lenneke Ruiten as Gretel with Kathedrale Koorschool Utrecht

The singing was equally gratifying, although the sets, with no backdrop or flats, did not favour the lighter voices. Both Lenneke Ruiten as Gretel and Kate Lindsey as Hansel were at times upstaged by the orchestra. Ms Ruiten was pitch-secure and vocally spry. Moving with splay-kneed bravado and singing with unfailingly beautiful tone, Ms Lindsey made a delightful Hansel. Charlotte Margiono’s Mother sounded steadiest and roundest in the lower range. Perhaps restrained by the concealing costume and blank-faced mask, Ms Margiono’s performance was less animated than her previous roles. As her husband, Thomas Oliemans was vocally impressive, full of zing and swagger, and with pin-sharp enunciation. A few phrases in the role require a bigger baritone, but Mr Oliemans wrapped his voice around them intelligently. Hendrickje van Kerckhove sang the Sandman and Dew Fairy with dream-like clarity and the children’s chorus was very well-rehearsed. Peter Hoare’s meaty tenor served the Witch well, but was challenged at the upper and lower limits. Although sung conventionally in comic character tenor vein, this Witch was truly unnerving, not for preteens and teens perhaps (this production is not suitable for young children), but for adults aware of “what’s out there”. The Witch was not a clay doll, but a real person, a bare-chested man in a Goldilocks wig and a frilly vaudeville costume; initially a ridiculous creature, but soon emerging as a sexual predator with a basement full of traumatized children. At this moment, it becomes clear what the elaborate construction of cardboard edifices, fantasy scripts and puppetry were all about—the exorcism of this evil by burning the Witch and unlocking the basement. The festive happy ending is all the more touching for having been imagined in such wretchedness.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Peter — Thomas Oliemans, Gertrud — Charlotte Margiono, Hänsel — Kate Lindsey, Gretel— Lenneke Ruiten, Die Knusperhexe— Peter Hoare, Sandmännchen/Taumännchen — Hendrickje van Kerckhove, Conductor — Marc Albrecht, Director — Lotte de Beer, Set Designer — Michael Levine, Costume Designers — Clement & Sanôu, Lighting Designer — David Finn, Video — Finn Ross, Dramaturgy — Peter te Nuyl, Klaus Bertisch, Utrecht Cathedral Choir School Children’s Choir, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Seen at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, Thursday, 3rd December 2015.

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