Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel und Gretel’ has had to wait 120 years for its first Proms staging, but its rapturous reception brings the wheel of its popularity full circle.
After its premiere - conducted by Richard Strauss, who admired it enormously - it became a worldwide hit. Within a year over 50 German theatres had staged it, and within 20 years it had been translated into 20 languages. In Britain it was the first complete opera to be broadcast on radio (from Covent Garden), and it was the first to be transmitted live from the New York Met. Concert versions were a staple until the Fifties, then it fell into a black hole, where it remained until Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera simultaneously gave it fresh productions two years ago. And it was Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne version which we got – its staging necessarily watered down - as the Prom.
Laurent Pelly has turned the story into a fable about capitalist consumerism, with dirty plastic bags blowing about in the forest, the Witch’s gingerbread house becoming a supermarket, and her captives modelled on the pathetically obese teenage denizens of our poor urban areas. The saccharine opening scene between the young protagonists is impossible to bring off today, but the vocal balance between mezzo Alice Coote as Hansel and soprano Lydia Teuscher as Gretel was ideal, while Irmgard Wilsmaier brought Wagnerian steel to the part of their mother. But it was William Dazeley’s entrance as the father which galvanised the evening, drunkenly clambering over bodies in the arena to reach the stage, his voice projecting a marvellous peasant coarseness. And when Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke appeared in his guise as the Witch, we got an explosion of comedy. This tenor-in-drag was a bigger and better incarnation of Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire, and his strip - to reveal spilling bosoms and a hairy tummy – had the whole place rocking. Yet there was enough danger in his performance to make the drama work as it should, particularly when supported by Robin Ticciati’s first brilliant stab at conducting this opera.
The overture sounded suitably Wagnerian, the lost children’s lullaby had a Straussian sweetness, and the scene with the echoing cuckoo - flute, human voices, and murmuring low woodwind – was pure enchantment.