|Every time the economy lurches these days, the story of Hansel and Gretel, particularly the operatic version by Humberdinck produced by Richard Jones at the Met earlier this year seems more poignant. Now is a time that the hunger we hear about in far off countries is coming closer to home.
The opera is about hunger. Hansel and Gretel in the opening scene are hungry, and sing (in English) hunger bites me. The parents are a modern couple: they both work but the family is not making it. Mother sings, Hunger eats away your soul. She is irritable and mean to the children and sends them out to pick berries for everyones supper: they get lost in the forest. And so on.
The materials are painful and often grisly, but the production is buoyed up by a kind of innocence that reminds me of the children in William Blakes Songs of Innocence who never lose touch with a vision of tenderness that could be theirs someday. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Wagnerian sized orchestra with subtle intimacy and pleasure. Humperdinck's masterpiece mixes simple folk tunes, toe-tapping waltzes, grand melodies, dreamy, sad passages, with delicate forest sounds that are orchestrated with sophistication and sort of lift your whole being above the scary horrors that threaten but never actually happen.
The production is quirky in a way that disarms yet increases ones alertness. Hansel and Gretel are both played by full grown women (the feisty mezzo Alice Coote, and sparky Christine Schaefer, soprano, respectively). The witch is played by tenor Philip Langridge in a costume that makes him look like Mrs. Doubtfire, though his energy in more like a slightly sinister Ed Wynn as Mary Poppins Uncle Albert. Endless delight from all performers.
Richard Jones production is full of treats for the eye and mind. Instead of fairies in the forest, there are 10 grossly corpulent cooks who bring in a feast that the children eat in their dream. There is no gingerbread house in the forest. Instead there is a curtain with a huge, toothy mouth from which protrudes a gigantic red tongue offering a supersized Battersburg chocolate cake that the children actually eat.
The witchs kitchen is a gourmet unit with a large centre island and restaurant sized oven. Her closets are filled with gingerbread children who come back to life after she herself has been been baked into a bread, but not before Hansel pushes her face into a cream pie. O yes, by the end of the opera, everyone is covered and smeared with food as if at a Hindu festival.
The whole two hours is a celebration of food, albeit based on hunger. Hansel and Gretel is the second in a series of operas filmed at the Met and issued by EMI as high-definition movie theatre broadcasts.
by Stanley Fefferman January 2009