The new popularity of Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘children’s opera’ Hansel und Gretel is as remarkable as was its original wildfire success. After its premiere - conducted by Richard Strauss, who admired it enormously - it became a worldwide hit, and within 20 years had been translated into 20 languages. It’s had some notable regional revivals over the last few decades, and in 2008 it returned centre-stage with simultaneous productions by Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera.
Children may love it, but this is emphatically not a children’s opera. For Freudians it’s a rumination on primeval childhood fears of separation from parents, of blindness, and death. In the Grimm Brothers’ version the impoverished and desperate mother plans to kill her offspring by leaving them to die in the forest, but Humperdinck’s gentler solution is to concentrate the evil in a witch who can be transformed into a cake and eaten. Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne production turned the story into an ecology lesson, with dirty plastic bags blowing through a forest of denuded trees, and the children’s hunger made to symbolise the misery of the starving Third World.
The silvered saplings surrounding the giant book which serves as Niki Turner’s set in Olivia Fuchs’s Garsington production presage something more fanciful. And when a page of that book is turned to reveal a pop-up cottage – a neat conceit since we’re sitting in a pop-up theatre – it’s clear that conjuring tricks are the order of the day. And the central performances are exceptionally strong. Claudia Huckle and Anna Devin play very convincingly off each other as Hansel and Gretel, with Devin’s delicately-shaded soprano complemented by Huckle’s sumptuous contralto; Yvonne Howard invests the role of the Mother with Wagnerian grandeur, while William Dazeley gives an electrifying reprise of his comically coarse-grained Father in the Glyndebourne production which came to the Proms.
Fuchs and Turner pull off a lovely trick as the action moves into the forest, with the five dancer ‘angels’ who signpost the scene-changes morphing into animals and dolls, while the Sandman (Rhiannon Llewellyn) comes on as Dracula. But rather than suggesting menace, this surreality colludes with the beauty emanating from the pit (under Martin Andre’s direction) to create an atmosphere of serene contentment. Despite Susan Bickley’s powerfully-projected Witch the final act is a disappointment, however, with the plot disappearing in a welter of silly sight gags. But the singing remains resplendent throughout.
This production will be relayed on the giant beach screen in Skegness on Sunday 7 July