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Reviews

14 Dec 2018

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Hänsel und Gretel, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Hänsel und Gretel, production image

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

The Royal Opera's new production of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel replaced Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's rather dark, contemporary vision of the opera, one that was mostly aimed at adults. On 13 December 2018, Antony McDonald's new production was firmly on the family-friendly side, the production notes saying that it was suitable for children over the age of six. McDonald, who both directed and designed, took a picture-book fairy-tale approach, yet did so with style and intelligence.

The eponymous children were played be Jennifer Davis and Hanna Hipp with Michaela Schuster and Eddie Wade as their parents (Wade was a very late replacement for an ailing James Rutherford), and Gerhard Siegel as the witch. Plus, Christina Gansch as the Dew Fairy and Haegee Lee as the Sandman. Sebastian Weigle conducted.

During the overture, the drop curtain depicted a picture-perfect Alpine valley, but we had two glimpses of Hänsel, Gretel and their family, the first happy and prosperous, the second dejected and poor, with a Swiss clock at the top of the proscenium indicating the passage of time. The look of the opening act was very much that of older traditional productions, with a realistic wooden chalet and even a stove (on which Mother would 'cook' at the end of the act). Yet the realism only went so far, and this was very much a fairy-tale with the family's hard times not having any of the dirty, sharp edges which some productions bring to it.

1513 James Rutherford as Peter, Michaela Schuster as Gertrud (C) ROH, 2018. Photographed by Clive Barda.jpgJames Rutherford as Peter, Michaela Schuster as Gertrud. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Michaela Schuster was a magnificent mother, really singing the role and making the character quite serious yet approachable. Eddie Wade gave sterling support as Father, a role which he only took over as short notice, and their scene at the end of Act One was a complex delight.

As the two children, Jennifer Davis and Hanna Hipp created an engaging and believable interaction, though these were fairy-tale children and the games never descended into nastiness or awkwardness. Jennifer Davis sang Elsa in the Royal Opera recent new production of Wagner's Lohengrin [see my review], so this was no light-weight account of the role, but Davis brought lightness and flexibility to her performance as well as admirable depth of tone. And she was well matched by Hanna Hipp's engaging Hänsel, so that there were none of the balance problems incipient in the opera when youthful voices collide with Humperdinck's neo-Wagnerian orchestrations.

1733 Jennifer Davis as Gretel, Hanna Hipp as Hansel (C) ROH, 2018. Photographed by Clive Barda.jpgJennifer Davis as Gretel, Hanna Hipp as Hansel. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

McDonald's vision of the forest in Act Two moved us firmly away from naturalism and into the world of fairy-tale, as his rather dark yet stylish forest was peopled with animals and magical beings, including a striking insect which slowly crawled up McDonald's false proscenium, a fox with a spade and a deer with a gun. Haegee Lee was unrecognisable as the charmingly gnome-like Sandman who was joined by a fairy who seemed to be the presiding genius of the forest.

The dream pantomime at the end of the act always presents a challenge for directors, and few try to implement directly the stage directions with the vision of fourteen angels, though here McDonald wittily gave reference to this when the Sandman and the Fairy placed strings of cut-out angels above the sleeping children's heads. Instead the forest was suddenly filled with characters from other fairy-tales by Brothers Grimm, all interacting in unusual ways so that Little Red Riding Hood stops Snow White from eating the apple. A charming idea, but it rather liked the cathartic emotional climax which this scene needs.

Act Three introduced us to Christina Gansch's delicious Dew Fairy with her watering can, a lovely cameo. The witch's house, when it appeared was firmly in the haunted house category, evoking either the motel in Psycho or perhaps the house belonging to the Adams Family . It certainly did not look like the classic gingerbread house, though there was a giant cherry on the top.

1874 Gerhard Siegel as Witch (C) ROH, 2018. Photographed by Clive Barda.jpg Gerhard Siegel as Witch. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Gerhard Siegel made a cosily characterful witch, transforming from a dirndl-clad Hausfrau into something of a mad-scientist in charge of the complex chocolate-making apparatus contained within the witch's house. Siegel sang well, and if you have to have Rosine Leckermaul played by a man, then this was perfectly admirable though I still prefer having her sung by a mezzo-soprano (that said, the one time I heard a counter-tenor singing the role was memorable indeed). The scene was delightful rather than disturbing or scary, and the climax was very much the moment when Rosine was pushed into the chocolate vat, its subsequent explosion and the witch's reappearance as a chocolate figure!

The children at the end, all chocolate covered, were played by members of the ROH Youth Opera Company.

Sebastian Weigle drew a richly romantic account of the score from the Royal Opera House Orchestra, making the music form a fine part of the overall fairy-tale.

I have to confess, that I rather prefer my productions of Hänsel und Gretel to have something of a psychological edge to them, but if you want pure fairy-tale then this production does it with great imagination.

Robert Hugill

Englebert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

Hänsel - Hanna Hipp, Gretel - Jennifer Davis, Mother - Michaela Schuster, Father - Eddie Wade, Sandman - Haegee Lee, Dew Fairy - Christina Gansch, Witch - Gerhard Siegel; Director/designer - Antony McDonald, Conductor - Sebastian Weigle, Lighting designer - Lucy Carter, Movement Director - Lucy Burge, Associate Set Designer - Ricardo Pardo.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 13 December 2018.

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