Hänsel und Gretel, Glyndebourne, east Sussex
Street Scene, The Young Vic, London
Grimm's fairytale lacks psychological fibre but there is some rather tasty singing and the London Philharmonic plays sweetly
Sunday 27 July 2008
Twice sanitised by the Brothers Grimm, the bloody tale of Hänsel und Gretel was wrapped in musical tinsel by Wagner's lapdog, Engelbert Humperdinck. As delicately scored as a Mendelssohn symphony, and as sentimental as a fairytale's apple-cheeked granny in its treatment of children, the fin de siècle operatic confection that was hailed as a masterpiece by Richard Strauss before its 1893 premiere illustrates why Elektra had to be written.
That Laurent Pelly's production is the first to be seen at Glyndebourne is hardly surprising. There's nothing like infanticide to put you off your picnic. We all know bad mothers exist. We all know that maternal hatred, like love, is commonly expressed through food. But this is no Freudian reading. Instead, Pelly has produced an eco-friendly, de haut en bas entertainment to make the patrons glad that they can afford to buy organic vegetables and have switched to hemp bags for their weekly trip to the farmers' market, and especially glad that their children resemble the slender youngsters in the Act II pantomime and not the fat-suited phalanx of Augustus Gloops that Hänsel (Jennifer Holloway) and his sister (Adriana Kucerova) rescue from the Witch's hot-pink hypermarché.
Tut-tutting about greed in Glyndebourne is a little ironic. Still, the tooth-rotting, sky-scraping, shrink-wrapped stack of acid-bright fizzy drinks, salty snacks and glucose goodies (designed by Barbara de Limburg Stirum) that stands for the gingerbread house is an arresting image. Another is a forest strewn with the wind-blown carrier bags colloquially known as "witches' knickers". Alas, we don't get to see the knickers worn by this particular Witch (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke), though he/she sheds his/her skirt-suit and Mrs Slocombe wig to reveal a sagging bra, balding pate and hirsute belly. Yes, ugly equals bad. Or at least feckless. For Mother (Irmgard Vilsmaier) wears a grimy apron, Father (Klaus Kuttler) a greasy vest, and the family home is a cardboard box.
What Pelly's staging lacks in psychological fibre, it makes up for in energy. The Hexenritt shadow-play is amusing, and Holloway and Kucerova's double-jointed hyperactivity and clear, sunny voices demonstrate again how cannily Glyndebourne casts young singers. Though Ablinger-Sperrhacke's characterisation is flat, the Sandman (Amy Freston) and Dew Fairy (Malin Christensson) shimmer.
In the pit, Kazushi Ono deftly separates Humperdinck's gleaming strands of sugared melody, drawing a toothsome performance from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Kuttler's dope of a dad is handsomely sung, and Vilsmaier's dark, thrilling mezzo made me long to hear her in a production where Mother and Witch are sung by the same performer. With a few adjustments she could do so here, making Pelly's prim fairy tale a far more subversive and dangerous treat.
The missing link between Porgy and Bess and West Side Story, Kurt Weill's American opera Street Scene is a stylistic supermarket-sweep. Puccini collides with Louis Jordan, Wagner with the blues, women's movies with Woyzeck as the residents of one Manhattan tenement contend with poverty, infidelity, delinquency, alcoholism, unrequited love, a heatwave, a murder, a small dog and a teething baby. Co-produced by The Opera Group and The Young Vic, this was a touching, humane show with stand-out performances from Andrew Slater (Mr Maurrant) and George Longworth (Willie Maurrant). Sadly, John Fulljames's well-paced direction couldn't conceal the fact that although there are some great numbers in Street Scene ("Somebody's gonna be so handsome", "Moon-faced, Starry-eyed") and some great women's roles (Elena Ferrari's lonely Mrs Maurrant, Charlotte Page's pinched Mrs Jones, Kate Nelson's sluttish Mae, Simone Sauphanor's guileless Mrs Fiorentino), the score stumbles towards its gloopy dénouement.
After Weill's schmaltz and Humperdinck's candyfloss, it was a relief to turn to Messaien's celestial ecstasy at the BBC Proms. But that's another story, and will have to wait for next week.
'Hänsel und Gretel' (01273 813813) to 29 Aug
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