Hansel and Gretel at the Met, not just for the kids

Revival may have dulled the edges of Richard Jones’s Hansel and Gretel, but this Met production still has a lot to recommend it. It’s got good and some great singing (thank you, Aleksandra Kurzak), a super score played very well by the orchestra, and Jones’s alternately harsh, grotesque, and sweet production is the most fully conceived and realized evening I’ve had at the Met this season.

Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel. Metropolitan Opera, 12/16/2011. Production by Richard Jones (revival), English translation by David Pountney, conducted by Robin Ticciati with Aleksandra Kurzak (Gretel), Kate Lindsey (Hansel), Robert Brubaker (Witch), Michaela Martens (Mother), Dwayne Croft (Father).

This production is well-known and already available on DVD but this was my first time seeing it so I’m going to describe it anyway. The Met performs this opera in David Pountney’s English translation. In lieu of photos of the current cast these ones show the 2009 cast–I will change this when I can.

Jones’s production starts off brutally realistic and gets increasingly surreal as the acts proceed. The whole thing is out of some mid-century British children’s novel that probably featured a character named Olive (also much detail about ration stamps and expecting extensive knowledge of outdated British coins–oh no, we’ve only a crown and sixpence remaining!). Each act takes place in a kitchen, representing the children’s hunger. The first is the bare one of Hansel and Gretel’s parents, the second is the ghostly one of the forest (with the loud interior decoration that has led me to call this director Wallpaper Jones), and the third is the ghastly one of the Witch. The children dream not of angels but of chefs bringing extravagant food, and you get the sense that Jones’s heart isn’t really in the prayer at the end. Like today’s children, he would prefer to see them break off a leg from the baked-up Witch.

The acting in this revival is on the broad side, and the timing isn’t always quite right. It was probably tighter the first time around–perhaps also in Chicago or Cardiff, where this production was first seen. But it stands up well, with magical and clever visual touches that play to both adults and children, from the glittery Sandman to the housewife Dew Fairy to the delightfully sloppy food fight in Act 3 (one of the messiest Messy Stage productions I’ve seen–a family-friendly version of Calixto Bieito’s Don Giovanni). It’s cute without being sugary and gets that grotesque meanness of an old school fairy tale but also the timeless pleasure of sticking a cream pie in someone’s face. It’s fun without talking down to anyone, and that’s a hard thing to achieve.

Purists may be offended by the lack of an actual gingerbread house, but in my opinion this is the kind of staging the Met needs more of in any repertory. It’s inventive, it’s visually strong, it’s not too challenging, and it revives pretty well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wallpaper Jones is an old pro at opera staging, not a newcomer from another discipline. Not all his productions are successful (though even his semi-failures like the Munich Lohengrin are interesting), but his work here is so many miles ahead of any of the Met’s new productions this season it’s not even funny.

One thing that was new about this revival was its conductor, Robin Ticciati, making his Met debut. It’s a badly kept secret that even though this opera is often considered a kiddie piece Humperdinck’s score is really, really good, a kind of fairy tale, more melodic Wagner. Excellent conducting can make a big impression. Ticciati sometimes got that, but I found a lot of it slack and unfocused, and transitions didn’t always flow smoothly. It wasn’t bad, but it could have been much better. The orchestra, however, was playing wonderfully.

The vocal star of the evening was Aleksandra Kurzak as Gretel, singing with youthful, radiant tone and excellent musicianship. Her English enunciation was clear if not always quite correct (her vowels sometimes weren’t the right ones), and she managed to play the youthful stuff as cute without being cloying. Kate Lindsey’s Hansel was less interesting. She’s a very solid and reliable singer with a soprano-like mezzo, but I can’t help but find her bland and generic. Acting-wise, she’s obviously experienced playing boys but sometimes her dance-happy hyperactivity wasn’t quite in the style of the production–she got a lot of laughs, though.

The Witch was, as often, played by a tenor in drag, here Robert Brubaker (last seen by me in my Most Confusing Opera Experience of 2011, Der König Kandaules at the Wiener Volksoper). He camped it up in fine style without quite stealing the show, and sang more pleasantly than you have any right to expect in this character role. Michaela Martens was a highlight as the Mother, her rich dramatic mezzo rather overqualified for such a short role. Dwayne Croft was less present as a character than the father could be–the most conspicuous sign of a toned-down revival, I suspect–but sang with bass-like resonance. The bit roles were strong, particularly Jennifer Johnson Cano as the Sandman.

It took me a few revivals to actually see this production. I generally avoid sites where children congregate en masse, and while they were generally well-behaved it was still chattier than normal. But I’m glad I finally did see it. More Richard Jones at the Met, please.

Performances continue through the holidays.

Trailer (different cast):

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  1. Totally agree with you on this production. More please! The DVD is one of the best to come out of the HD broadcasts though Christine Schafer's English intonation isn't spot on either. That girl does do "grubby" really well though.

  2. I love that production, which played in San Francisco some years back. I went to see it twice, once with Runnicles conducting, the other with Nic McGegan of Philharmonia Baroque.

    Agree with you about the score – it is deceptively complex and hard to get right. Jon Alan Conrad's review of then-available recordings in the Met Guide to Opera on Record is spot on. I am a big fan of the oldest complete recording, with Erna Berger (she is of course PERFECT though in her 40s at the time) and the magisterial witch of Margarete Arndt-Ober, who was then past 60. Love Eichhorn as well, despite the bad Hansel of Anna Moffo.

  3. I remember trying to make it to this production when it was revived at WNO (I was in Bristol for a few days and fairly busy, but could have made more of an effort). Pity.

    Robin Ticciati is the most overrated of Rattle's protégés, IMHO. I have a friend who worked with him recently, and am told that there's very little going on upstairs and his rehearsal skills are only just about OK (as she put it, he's 'learning on the job'). That tallies with what I've heard so far, which is four concerts, though no opera as of yet.