Richard Bratby

Irresistible: Hansel and Gretel, at the Royal Opera House, reviewed

Plus: the paradox of lyrical opera – the more you cut, the longer it feels

Anna Stéphany and Anna Devin as Hansel and Gretel (Royal Opera House/Tristam Kenton)

Fun fact: Engelbert Humperdinck composed part of Wagner’s Parsifal. Shortly before the première, it was discovered that Wagner’s score didn’t allow time for a crucial scene change. The 27-year-old Humperdinck, then working as Wagner’s assistant, composed a few temporary bars to cover the gap and, rather to his own surprise, found that they met with the Master’s full approval: ‘Why not? It should work!’ It’s worth knowing partly because of the light it throws on the practical, collegial working methods of music’s favourite cartoon supervillain, and partly because it reaffirms the originality of Humperdinck’s own best-known opera, Hansel and Gretel. How many artists could have flown that close to Wagner’s magic fire, and still emerged with their individuality unsinged?

Still, there’s no question that part of the charm of Hansel and Gretel is its tender, light-touch Wagnerism: Siegfried for the pre-teens. Or so I’d lazily thought (in fairness, it’s a perspective endorsed by many of the classic recordings). Anyway, Mark Wigglesworth conducted the recent revival at Covent Garden and, orchestrally at least, it was an opera transformed. Gone was the Valhalla glow of the opening horn chorale; Wigglesworth phrased it sweetly and simply, like the children’s prayer it is. It was a fitting prelude to an evening of sprung rhythms, playful detailing and woody, homespun textures – closer to Bohemia than to Bayreuth, and reclaiming Humperdinck’s masterpiece for the Volksoper tradition, rather than indulging its subsequent reputation as a kindergarten Gesamtkunstwerk.

The central performances, too, were notable for their sensitivity and unselfishness – which is not to say that Rosie Aldridge’s gleeful villainy and sunbeam coloratura as the Witch deserved anything less than the ovation she received. We know that both Anna Stéphany (Hansel) and Anna Devin (Gretel) can sing more opulently than this, but they wrapped their voices closely around their characters, and around Wigglesworth’s buoyant, guileless interpretation.

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