Hansel and Gretel

Reviewer's rating

Hansel and Gretel is a very strange opera. Written by Humperdinck for a first performance in 1893 (conducted by Richard Strauss, no less) it was much admired in Germany and became a Christmas staple of German opera houses. Hampstead Garden Opera (HGO) has chosen it for its autumn offering and this is a very creditable version. It is based on a rather morbid fairy story recorded by the Grimm Brothers but, over the years, it has been softened and Humperdinck’s version provides a suitably seasonal happy ending  – if killing a witch can really be counted as a happy ending.

Hansel and Gretel live in poverty in a cottage in the woods. Their father is a pretty unsuccessful broom salesman and the family is short of food. Their mother punishes the children rather harshly for some innocent horseplay by sending them out into the forest to collect berries for the family supper. They find the berries but eat them all, lose track of time and fall asleep under the trees, with the aid of the mysterious Sandman fairy. They are protected by a group of angels. When they wake up in the morning they see a gingerbread cottage in the distance, meet the witch who lives there and she lures them inside. She fattens up Hansel but, just before she can roast him, the resourceful Gretel tricks the witch into giving a cookery demonstration and pushes her into her own oven. The parents turn up and the family is happily reunited.

This production uses an ingenious framing device for the opera. As the overture plays we see an adult Hansel and Gretel entering the cottage as if to clear it out, presumably after their mother’s death. They find mementoes of their early life, watch and remember their childhood struggles, and observe the events that lead their younger selves into their adventure in the forest. The climax of the first half  – the evening prayer duet with the children under the gaze not of angels but of their adult selves – is extraordinarily moving. Sadly, the second half fails to keep this magical spell alive, but the fault lies as much Humperdinck, as with the inventive director,  Jeanne Pansard-Besson. The slapstick action that leads to the witch being pushed into her own oven is from another genre of music theatre – and the over-the-top portrayal of the cannibalistic old lady by Mae Heydorn is well sung but just jars after the joys of her nuanced portrayal of the mother in the first half.

The performances are consistently excellent. There are two alternating casts, as is usually the case with HGO and, on the night I saw it, Alexandra Meier and Felicitas Wrede sang Hansel and Gretel. Both sang with style and poise – Meier was a suitably insouciant Hansel while Wrede was, after her early fears about the deep dark forest, more of a ‘big sister’ Gretel whose ingenious outwitting of the witch came as no surprise. Oskar McCarthy was a fine father whose day of good sales in the market led to a very frisky encounter with his wife until he realised the children were missing.

In the tiny roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, Amelia Langley and Marie Cayeux were so good that one could only wish that their singing opportunities had been more substantial. And the chorus of children released from their gingerbread prison after the death of the witch was great. The chamber orchestra of thirteen instrumentalists was placed at the back of the stage behind the singers and, under the baton of Thomas Payne, played with a subtlety and restraint that suited the style of the production well.

I will remember the first half of this production for a long time – I will hope, one day, to see a production of the second half that matches the first half that HGO conjured up at Jacksons Lane. But, for a lively performance with excellent singing and plenty of dramatic ideas, HGO has hit another high point.