Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Through the Woods

Hansel and Gretel
Composed by Engelbert Humperdinck
Directed by Richard Jones
Conducted by Vladimir Jurowski
Starring Christine Schäfer, Alice Coote, Philip Langridge, Rosalind Plowright, Alan Held

Performances December 24, 2007-January 31, 2008
The Metropolitan Opera
West 63rd Street and Broadway

Langridge as the Witch
Coote as Hansel
and Schafer as Gretel

The Met’s second annual holiday production is Hansel and Gretel, an opera with a built-in attraction for children of all ages. Humperdinck’s musical setting of his own sister’s libretto based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale—written in rhyming, fancy German—contains sumptuous, shimmering sounds, and is short enough (approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission) so that kids won’t get too fidgety. It also has solid roles for good singer-actors to keep adults entertained as well.

The best Hansel I’ve seen, at Juilliard, had Maurice Sendak’s gorgeous sets and costumes at its disposal. As Where the Wild Things Are attests, Sendak has no equal in visualizing a world of simultaneous beauty and terror seen through children’s eyes. Too bad the Met didn’t import Sendak’s colorfully inspired sets and costumes for its “Hansel,” but instead went with a production created by Richard Jones for Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, which is a cluttered disaster.

Jones has visualized each act differently; according to his program notes, act one’s kitchen is based on D.H. Lawrence, act two’s forest comes from Frank Wedekind (Lulu, Spring Awakening), and act three’s gingerbread house is out of the Theater of the Absurd. “Absurd,” however, could describe the entire production, which is relentlessly grimy and uninteresting, and depressingly grey throughout. Children seated near me seemed bored and confused by a forest with a large wooden table, several “tree men” wearing suits with branches sprouting where their necks and heads should be, and 14 chefs with enormous heads setting up a feast at the table for the sleeping siblings who dream of 14 angels to watch over them.

The interior of the witch’s kitchen is dominated by an industrial warehouse oven, table and door at odds with the edible gingerbread treats that would make Hansel and Gretel want to enter this house looking for more sweets to eat. (One large, frosted layer cake that’s pushed through a giant mouth to entice them doesn’t pass muster.)

Happily—as with the Met’s War and Peace—this is a musically first-rate Hansel and Gretel, starting with Vladimir Jurowski’s assured conducting of the Met Orchestra, which superbly paces the drama and black comedy. Australian Alice Coote (Hansel) and German Christine Schäfer (Gretel) sing beautifully, if sometimes awkwardly in David Pountney’s cleverly-rhymed English translation. (Schäfer particularly is difficult to hear with her heavily-accented English.)

The children’s chorus that appears at the end sings angelically, and Rosalind Plowright and Alan Held make powerful impressions in the small but pivotal roles of Hansel and Gretel’s parents. Finally, Philip Langridge hams it up hilariously as the witch; suited up in make-up and clothes that make him look like one of the Monty Python bunch in drag, Langridge has a ball planning to bake and eat these unfortunate kids: it’s too bad he only appears in the final act, because he makes an otherwise drab gingerbread house a delightful place to be eaten in.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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