Not in front of the children

The London staging of Hänsel und Gretel was far superior to Berlin’s ludicrously bad production

Duncan Reed

Everyone knows Hansel and Gretel is a children’s story. Fewer realise that Hänsel und Gretel is the ideal introduction to the operatic art form for children.
 So, given the choice of two productions in close succession, should a responsible father plump for London in the run-up to Christmas, or Berlin just after, where prices are half those in Austerity Britain and this particular opera is a seasonal repertory staple?

I opted for the Berlin performance. Oh no, Dad . . .

Humperdinck’s opera is not simply für Kinder, or not quite. The title page of the score states “folk tale opera” (Märchenspiel), so one can usually expect something for the grown-up children too. Over the years, directors have thus indulged in ever more disturbing iterations of its darker elements, often to reflect whatever neuroses society happens to be ventilating at the time. 

Covent Garden did this a decade ago, in a production which had the bodies of the Witch’s child-victims slung up on meat hooks, to the accompaniment of a genuinely disturbing Witch in Anja Silja (wonderfully pitch-approximate), and the conducting of Sir Colin Davis, channelling the Wagnerian elements in the score which Humperdinck, himself an acolyte of the Sorceror of Bayreuth, had sown firmly into its fabric.

In Berlin, the issue was not the need for an 18 certificate, but the basic lack of production quality control, possibly a case for trading standards (opera house division). 

Germany is the centre of regietheater, or “director’s theatre” where directors habitually take liberties with the intentions and/or stage directions of the composer.Achim Freyer is 84 and a doyen of this movement. Oddly tasked with this evergreen piece, originally to inaugurate the delayed re-opening of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, he somehow manages to wring a farrago out of a hitherto indestructible opera. 

My daughter nailed it with the headline “The Opera That Goes Wrong”. She meant the staging, which in its cheapness and risibility recalled to her the efforts of the Cornley Polytechnic Dramatic Society. 

The dream pantomime — after the famous “Evening Prayer” which closes Act 2 — was particularly inept, looking as if the director had run out of ideas before the music had reached its drowsily sublime end. Here, as elsewhere, he failed utterly to tell the tale either clearly or well. 

A litany of absurdities: puppet heads for Hansel and Gretel which one presumed (prayed) would be soon discarded, but which remained even unto the curtain calls, so that one was able neither to engage with the characters nor (often) even to understand who was singing; a Witch’s house (“little castle” in the libretto) the size of a dog kennel; the Sandman a faceless triangle in Santa colours; the Dew Fairy a watering can; and, in no particular order, an unscripted toad, an unfathomable chicken playing a fiddle, and a redundant bear. 

The Witch likewise was not personalised, merely a tall, hooded, stooped figure, with a finger for a nose and confectionery for a face. Apparent directorial “signatures” for students of Freyer’s work, such as a giant spider, were present and correct. Tick.  A few points interested us mildly. The Mother, not Hansel, breaks the jug of milk destined for rice pudding ­— but she blames him anyway, the more unfairly ushering the children out into the forest to pick strawberries. In the dream pantomime sequence, Father appears as a circus ringmaster. Parents, eh?

By midpoint in Act 3, people were voting with their feet; children were fidgeting (not mine, of course, being agog at what they were witnessing); but still, at the “curtain” (no sign of this, either), the audience clapped obediently, inured or simply regimented. Do they never demand better for their taxes, let alone for their tickets?“Revolutio” was proclaimed above the stage (description? injunction?). Well, much had been turned upside down (an “upside-down clown” already telegraphing the point), though not in a good way. 

It is difficult to discern if the ageing enfant terrible famed for his edgy work was reduced to such confusing banalities out of a dislike of the work or merely a desire to troll the patrons. This is perhaps easier to do in an environment insulated from the punters by the insulating whoopee cushion of public subsidy.

By contrast, the Royal Opera House’s budget is now only a quarter funded by the taxpayer. This perhaps makes it the keener to find easily revivable opera productions to match The Nutcracker, its long-bankable festive ballet offering. 

Sans any enfants, and for comparison, I did catch London’s new, though essentially traditional, presentation of Hänsel und Gretel from Antony McDonald, which looked nice, and will indeed be endlessly revived. The conductor in London, Sebastian Weigle, had conducted the premiere of the Berlin production a year ago. He must have felt he had been turned the right way up again.

Painted flats suggested the pages of a pop-up book of fairy tales, an outsized copy of which (“GRIMM”, subtly) Hansel clutched in the opening scene. This foreshadowed the happily more eventful dream pantomime which had Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin interacting to novel effect.

McDonald — like Freyer — is a designer who also directs, and though he has little original to say about the piece (admittedly a tallish order) we did see a transgender Witch, with a decent-sized, apparently edible Witch’s house (gingerbread railings, duly snacked on) and a cake knife plunged into the roof and jam/blood oozing down the windows. 

Gerhard Siegel sang well, unmenacingly, and was not oven-cooked but dunked in a vat of chocolate. (In Berlin, the director was said to be unprepared to countenance Crispy Witch and so a few low flames flickered on the backcloth.) 

The cast was uniformly good, with the horseplay of Hansel and Gretel in the opening scene infectiously sung and joyously choreographed.

On this showing, London knows how to put on this German warhorse better than Berlin. Is it time for them to cut their public subsidy to UK proportions and let some market forces in?

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