Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera, Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel – Englebert Humperdinck 

**** (4 stars)

Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel follows the traditional fairy story: brother and sister are sent out into the forest to look for food when their parents can no longer manage to feed them.  The children get lost, and have to sleep in the forest: when they wake the next morning they are enticed into the witch’s cottage with promises of food.  The witch intends to fatten them up and eat them, but they manage to foil her evil plan and release the other children who are her previous victims.

Filmed live at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, the show began, gloriously, with the sound of the orchestra tuning up: how I’ve missed that!  The musicians were at the back of the stage, meaning the singers had a closer connection with them but had to watch on screens for their cues rather than having an immediate link with the conductor: rather like us with our zoom meetings…

From the beginning, the ‘dark mysterious wood’ was visibly surrounding the very simple cottage into which Hansel and Gretel came, obsessed with food because they are so hungry, and turning to their toys for comfort.  They are happy in their play world, but sadden in the face of reality: they can’t even console each other with a hug: they reach out, but can’t touch – social distancing again…

Mother comes home, furious with the children for playing instead of doing chores – “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” she sings.  She accidentally breaks the jug of milk intended for their supper but blames the children and throws them out of the house –“that’s what happens when children provoke you” [lockdown frustrations…].  Father comes in singing “light the fire, your husband’s here”, waving a can of beer and demanding to know what’s for supper.  When his wife snaps that there’s nothing, he brings out a bag of food which he’s been able to buy that day after selling all his brooms.  She tells her husband the children are not in bed, but out in the forest.  He is alarmed – the forest is not safe at night for children, many of whom have been lost without trace. 

As they go in search of their children scary music depicts the haunted wood while [another much-missed sight] the stage crew set the next scene.  Calmer music interwoven with birdsong accompanies Gretel and Hansel through the wood [created by four branch-waving cloaked and hooded figures].  The children find some berries to take home, but can’t resist eating them.  They need to pick more, but realise that the light is fading and they are lost.  Hansel gets scared, and gets his cuddly toy out for comfort – but then lies to Gretel “I’m a boy, I know no fear”.  The wind rises and the chorus pick up umbrellas which have lights along their ridges: as the music becomes more agitated they surround the children with them, frightening them.  Then the Sandman appears to sprinkle the children with sleep-sand, and the children remember to say their evening prayer about the fourteen angels who will guard them while they sleep.  Sinking into sleep, they are surrounded by a wall of lighted umbrellas and rows of cuddly toys: they stretch out a hand to each other but can’t touch…

Act three begins with lively music full of cheerful birdsong.  The Dewdrop fairy [looking remarkably like the Sandman, but with sparkly wings] comes in with her water spray and Gretel wakes up, revelling in the glories of nature.  Hansel sleeps on until his sister provokes him into wakefulness and they compare notes on the ‘very special dream’ they had. 

Another cloaked and hooded figure appears, pushing a shopping trolley laden with sweets towards them.  Hansel can’t resist, even while Gretel suggests that it’s ‘meant to deceive’.  Hansel retorts that maybe the angels sent it, and grabs and guzzles, oblivious to the little voice singing “greedy little mousey, stop nibbling at my housey”…  Gretel succumbs to the lure of the sweets too – but their delighted, excited waltz suddenly stops as a figure dressed all in red and covered in Christmas tree ornaments emerges from the cloak.  She tempts them to her house with the ultimate weapon – their favourite, rice pudding.  Hansel is only too ready to go, but Gretel resists until the WITCH uses her magic glitter-broom and spell to paralyse them.  Like robots they march to her house: Hansel is imprisoned in a second shopping trolley, and Gretel is yet again sentenced to domestic slavery, while the witch gloats about the wonderful dinner she is about to have… but fear not, children, the evil witch is tricked into her own oven and the children dance and sing while she roasts.

Small ‘children’ in Christmas onesies emerge while Gretel and Hansel are having a trolley fight and throwing tinsel about – they are free from the witch’s spell, but they are blind.  Unable to touch them, Gretel and Hansel wonder how they can help them – using the witch’s magic ‘wand’ to restore the children’s sight, and they all dance and sing for joy.  Father appears, followed by Mother, delighted to find their children are safe, and all join in a hymn of thanks to God – “when in need or dark despair, God in heaven will grant your prayer”.

Another delightful feature of this show was the applause – a bit thin, but genuine: presumably the tech crew – as the cast came on stage to take their bow.  And the orchestra got their well-deserved applause too.  Recorded live on the 19th December, and most definitely under socially-distanced conditions, this is a show well-worth watching, as both a reminder of and an antidote to the current climate of restrictions and uncertainty.

I have to say up front that German 19th century opera is not my favourite part of the repertoire: despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing a live performance that faced up to the limitations of performing with budget restraints and covid restrictions and gave us a Hansel and Gretel in a very contemporary ‘fairy tale’ setting.  I found the gender stereotypes irritating and the German Romanticism cloying: not exactly the best way to keep children engaged – but then is this really a kids’ story?  It wasn’t written for 21st century children, but  a Moral Tale that would be all the rage in 19th C Europe…

and that’s Humperdinck’s fault, not Scottish Opera’s! 

The setting was very apposite and the language contemporary, with lots of swearing – probably not unfamiliar to many children…  Removing the titles [if that were possible] might reduce the ‘offence factor’: but it was helpful to be able to work out what was being sung.  It was interesting to notice how the continual use of close-up of singers both aided lip-reading and made it much harder to believe that Gretel and Hansel were children…

Kitty Whately and Rhian Lois got right under the children’s skins; realistically child-like as siblings playing nicely one moment and the next spatting furiously.  Nadine Benjamin’s Mother and Witch double-act was well-done if more pantomimic than terrifying, and Phillip Rhodes’ father made the most of his few scenes, while Charlie Drummond made the most of her two cameos as Sandman and Dewdrop Fairy. 

Scottish Opera’s orchestra was conducted by David Parry using Derek Clark’s reduced score.  Instead of a massive orchestra we had a virtual chamber orchestra – fewer strings and only one woodwind/ brass player per section – but the score was still as lush and many-layered, and the orchestral sound did full justice to the complex chromaticism of much of the music while also bringing out the clarity and simplicity of the evening prayer.

Hopefully this cheerily gruesome production will enchant both kids and adults alike, and prove that opera isn’t simply ‘fat ladies singing in Latin’.  Should it whet your appetite for more, you can continue to get your opera fix on Scottish Opera’s website where you’ll find Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Opera highlights, Janáček’s The Diary of one who disappeared, Menotti’s The telephone, and – I have to see this! – Samuel Bordoli and Jenni Fagan’s The narcissistic fish

Scottish Opera presents Hansel and Gretal filmed live at Glasgow Theatre Royal 19 December 2020 Go to: https://www.scottishopera.org.uk/shows/hansel-gretel/

Review by Mary Woodward

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