Hänsel und Gretel, Glyndebourne, East Sussex
Wednesday 29 October 2008
What is Engelbert Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel about? Freudians have it typed as a rumination on primeval childhood fears – of separation from parents, of blindness, and of death. In the Grimm brothers' original version, the impoverished mother plots to kill her children by leaving them in the forest: Humperdinck kindly gives her an alter ego, with the Witch – whom the children eventually kill – as the repository of evil.
Seeing the Glyndebourne version three months ago, I was dubious about the director Laurent Pelly's transformation of the Witch's gingerbread house into a supermarket. Seeing Glyndebourne's touring company do it now, however, has been nothing less than a revelation, because history has mysteriously caught up with his vision. His joyfully millenarian conclusion presents us with the death of capitalism, and there could be no neater symbolic reflection of that hopeful dream now pervading public consciousness. Moreover, Pelly's forest of denuded trees and dirty plastic bags is a perfect metaphor for ecological devastation, while the fear of hunger – until recently, a theoretical conceit for us Westerners – chimes uneasily with reality.
And though this production is charmingly invaded by an army of child-performers, this is anything but a "children's opera". The mezzo Elizabeth DeShong's finely sung Hänsel and the soprano Bernarda Bobro's gracefully plangent Gretel make wonderfully authentic brats, while Klaus Kuttler delicately caricatures the role of the Father, but the parents' relationship feels painfully real, and the whole thing has an ironical edge.
And whenever Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke appears in his guise as the Witch, we get an explosion of comedy. This tenor-in-drag recalls nothing so much as Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire, and the visual fun Pelly has in projecting his inaugural broomstick-ride – kick-starting it like a motorbike – brings the house down, as does his strip to reveal spilling bosoms and a hairy belly.
And with the Glyndebourne touring orchestra on top form, Humperdinck's still-underrated music gets the best possible showcase. The intermittently Wagnerian quality of the orchestration alternates with that winning sweetness that caused Richard Strauss – who conducted the premiere – to welcome it as a more beautiful work than his fellow-Germans deserved.
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