In Laurent Pelly's new production of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, deforestation is already advanced: plastic bags hang from denuded trees, and the ground is strewn with the discarded waste of our overindulgent society.
Overindulgent for some, that is. Poor Hänsel and Gretel live in a cardboard box (designer Barbara de Limburg Stirum), the bar code clearly visible. Well, at least they're recycling.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that this most symbolist of Grimm tales should get the conservation treatment at some point, and here it is. But it's not heavy-handed; rather, it's deft and discreet, as befits this elegant director. However, the bar has been set so high in stagings of this opera, and vivid memories are so indelible that Pelly's take suffers to a degree from being too understated.
I'm thinking especially of the Dream Pantomime that concludes Act II. It's such a glorious, climactic sequence musically that the theatrical "concept" needs to deliver something equally strong. Pelly flounders. If he's trying to suggest that the "guardian angels" sent to protect the hapless siblings are privileged children who scrutinise them but selfishly move on, he has not clarified his purpose. Given what the music is doing – gloriously, under the baton of Kazushi Ono – the staging is oddly ineffectual.
Humour is Pelly's thing, and he delivers that in some measure. The Witch's Ride entr'acte brings a silhouette show of the Witch test-driving brooms before taking flight. "She" is the creepily androgynous Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, whose pink suit and hair are stripped away to reveal a bald, pot-bellied predator. And this being a show for our times, his/her house comprises shelves stuffed with tasty consumer bait.
Nothing, of course, is as tasty as Humperdinck's score, and Ono and the London Philharmonic keep it light, rhythmic and transparent. The "kids" are beautifully characterised by Jennifer Holloway as a gangly Hänsel, with a hint of Dennis the Menace, and Adriana Kucerova as a hyperactive Gretel. But what of their future? In a funny, salutary pay-off, Pelly tenders a warning about children being overindulged. But his is not quite the full-fat Hänsel und Gretel we might have anticipated.
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