Hänsel und Gretel
Royal Albert Hall
How frightening an opera is Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, or how frightening should it be? The answer to the first question, if one had only encountered Hänsel at the Prom performance which Glyndebourne brought to London last week, was ‘not at all’. It was given in a semi-staged version, but virtually nothing of Laurent Pelly’s distinctive production survived. At Glyndebourne the family live in a cardboard house; the forest the children wander into looking for berries is denuded, empty plastic shopping baskets hang from branches; and in Act III the Witch’s gingerbread house is a vast construction of gaudily packaged junk foods; while — to the alarm and distaste of many of my colleagues — the redeemed children who enter at the end are all clinically obese.
Little of this transferred to the Royal Albert Hall. The stage, behind and above the orchestra, was sparsely furnished, but that is what one expects in a semi-staging; of the forest there was scarcely a hint, a couple of upturned brooms not really conveying the presence of nature, however despoiled; the gingerbread house was, brilliantly, a model of the Albert Hall, hideously colourful; only the redeemed children retained their obesity, inconsequential in the context. Worst, however, was the absence of a plausible oven. It is absolutely necessary that it should look as if Gretel will be roasted, and that the Witch should be instead. Here all we got was a fairly large cardboard box with the outline of an oven scrawled on the front; the Witch was pushed in, but all s/he could do was put her head in a hole and run off up the steps, a feeble end to evil.
Actually, even the production of which this was a watered-down version hardly wrung my withers, because I found the Witch of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke so funny, and whatever the menace and fear on stage, the music offers an almost continuously consoling commentary, so that even its threatening moments are passing frissons. In an excellent article in this year’s Glyndebourne programme, which unfortunately didn’t survive into the Proms booklet, Julian Johnson traces how the story is transformed from being one of the Grimms’s most fearful tales to being halfway between innocuous and something like an affirmation of faith in a divine order. As Johnson rightly implies, any opera that opens as the overture to Hänsel does has no harmful intent. That gorgeous hymn-like melody, richly scored for horns, later returns when Father sings, ‘When our need is at its greatest, God extends His hand to us,’ and it is the foundation of the sublime pantomime, which ends Act II, where, as Johnson says, ‘the emotional intensity of the orchestral music overflows the dramatic situation’; and it returns again to bring the work to a secure close. Although Wagner’s influence is ubiquitous, and wholly benign, in the musical fabric of the work, the urge to move towards something transcendental is less happy, in that the story is insulated from the start from anything frightening, and certainly from anything as frightening as children love to be told about. The parents, positively malign in Grimm, are here simply terribly poor and momentarily forgetful. The one truly painful moment in the score, where Meistersinger and Siegfried give way to Parsifal, is when Mother, having sent the children into the forest to get berries, sinks down in despair at the family’s poverty and hunger.
At the Prom there were compensations in the acting. Father entered through the arena, singing boozily as he progressed through the prommers, and was given a hand by a percussionist to make it to the stage. Alice Coote looked more convincing than ever as Hänsel, and Ablinger-Sperrhacke made a stunningly ghastly and hilarious appearance in his pink drag get-up, though stripped to her smalls the Witch became merely repulsive. Overall, one couldn’t hope for a more satisfactory set of soloists, with the anguished Mother of Irmgard Vilsmaier and the Dew Fairy of Ida Falk Winhead especially telling.
The factor that led the performance into greatness, though, was the conducting of Robin Ticciati. A score so rich in melody and sumptuous harmony might easily be loved to death, or inflated. Ticciati got the London Philharmonic, on stupendous form immediately after the close of their Glyndebourne season, to play as if they had just discovered its beauties, and were still trying to believe their eyes and ears, and made us all feel the same way. Even Ticciati, though, could do little to rescue Act III from its thinness. It sounds as if Humperdinck panicked about the opera’s being too short, and too weighted towards comfort, but had no resources to make the Witch more terrifying than the histrionic capacity of the role’s performer. That’s not what one remembers, though. What haunts you for days after is the unique glow of the end of Act II.