The Royal Opera’s staging of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel carries a parental advisory notice: “This production contains potentially disturbing images for very young or sensitive children”. If only. It’s true that one or two moments induce a momentary shudder, not least thanks to hints of German Expressionism in Christophe Forey’s lighting. For much of the time, though, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s staging barely scrapes away the candy floss. It isn’t that they don’t see the darkness underneath, rather that they can’t help keeping things pretty.
And remembers that
These performances were to have been conducted by Charles Mackerras, who died in July. No one can take his place but Rory MacDonald makes sure that his players make the most of every detail of Humperdinck’s lustrous orchestral score.
Ismene Brown writing for the Arts Desk loves Jane Henschel as the Witch.
Last night’s opening of the Royal Opera’s revival of its jaunty 2008 production fielded in a splendid cast a tremendous Witch, Jane Henschel, the size of a ship in a cardigan, and with a voice that can still make the lulled auditorium jump.
Henschel has the right combination of a Wagnerian cackle and lascivious dimples to be able to say, “I am Rosina Sweet-Tooth and I am as friendly and innocent as baby”, and for just a second make it credible. But then she turns around and you see her long tangled grey hair has a bloody streak down the back, the titanic body is squeezed into a fishtail tweed skirt. Next thing we’re in a kitchen the size of Valhalla, two gigantic ovens, and a butcher block the better to chop up the contents of her huge chiller with. And I won’t say what’s in that, because it is a good coup de théâtre.
The styling is like a children’s book, flat scissored sets, with a sharply wonky bedroom for the children (picture of ballerina on wall for Gretel), a forest like a layered collage of photographs (lovely, outdoorsy) and a Witch’s kitchen the Aga country set would die for. It feels Forties-ish and mittelEuropean. Allen swaggers around the children’s tiny bedroom with his beer bottle and Spar groceries, vocally ideal and leering tipsily at Yvonne Howard as his wife as they start some rumpypumpy on Hansel’s bed, before collecting themselves.
I don’t think the bedroom setting works with the libretto (parents don’t make their kids’ bedroom the venue for their own sexplay – that’s another fairy tale, surely?), but its deceptive cosiness suits the Grimm Brothers’ deliberate softening of the original fable’s frightening interchange of mother and witch.
Deceptive, because this modernised context does highlight a new moral – that it’s greed that got the kids into the near-lethal scrape. No darkness clouds the tale thanks to much benevolence inserted by Humperdinck’s librettist, his sister, to ensure a light-hearted family evening.
Edward Bhesania for The Stage appreciates the production’s design and detail.
Unsurprisingly for this directorial duo of Moshe and Caurier, there’s plenty of visual flair. Hansel and Gretel’s trapezoid-framed bedroom, set within the forest, may seem unprepossessing, but the forest itself shifts in mood from a source of wonderment to one of menace. In the children’s dream sequence the directors call upon squirrel-headed white angels with illuminated wings while the impoverished parents are imagined in a warm, well-appointed home, the climax arriving as the children chomp away on dreamy hunger-sating sandwiches. Then a pantomime Barbie-like Dew Fairy arrives, rubber-gloved, with her trolley of brushes to sweep away the final vestiges of night.
But remains a little disappointed.
Disappointingly, though, the production neither offers any particular psychological angle on the tale, nor does it give full rein to the humour.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton