Richard Jones won London’s 1990 Olivier award for directing the first British production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine Into the Woods, and a stunningly iconoclastic treatment it was. So it made sense for the Welsh National Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago to turn to Jones for a version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s sometimes jolly, sometimes moody Hansel and Gretel, which has now arrived at the Metropolitan Opera as this year’s family offering.
But what the decision makers didn’t seem to consider is that while the Sondheim-Lapine work represents a post-modern take on fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel doesn’t call for the kind of revisionist view that Jones and sets and costumes designer James Macfarlane have come up with. They’ve approached the popular piece with dark notions antithetical to what the Brothers Grimm or Humperdinck had in mind — and forget what Adelheid Wette, Humperdinck’s sister and librettist, intended when she softened aspects of the troubling story.
It’s Jones and Macfarlane’s thought that Hansel and Gretel — now parented by a well-meaning couple unable to feed their offspring — don’t go into those mysterious, life-altering woods at all. Instead, they venture from the claustrophobic suburban kitchen of act one to two other sinister kitchens. One could be dubbed a night kitchen, because the famished brother and sister are served a dream feast by 14 big-headed Maurice Sendak-like chefs. The guardian angels Humperdinck and Wette envisioned are nowhere to be seen, although four men are present in suits and clusters of barren branches where their heads should be.
Moreover, Jones and MacFarlane see the witch’s gingerbread house where the children are imprisoned as a low-rent industrial kitchen. Granted, the siblings are enticed inside just after a scrim has descended that features a Rolling Stones-logo-type mouth through which an enticing multi-layered cake sits on a long, lascivious tongue. The scrim is one of several beautifully drafted scrims depicting either empty plates or ravenous mouths.
While claiming to draw on his childhood memories, Jones has lost sight of the appeal this fairy tale has long had for youngsters. It’s true enough that children needn’t be exposed only to sweetness and light in order to be entertained. Still, a Hansel and Gretel wherein a distraught mom in an unprepossessing skirt and blouse considers taking her life by popping pills doesn’t seem the sort of thing Santa’s elves would deem appropriate. The boy sitting in front of me, who couldn’t have been more than nine or ten, did applaud when Hansel and Gretel pushed the wicked witch into her oven, but prior to that satisfying moment, the lad had only paid intermittent attention to what was happening on stage.
However, the performers on that stage are working hard for the audience’s attention.
Coote, pumping her arms and gruffly jumping, turns Hansel into an energetic, resonant-voiced boy. Christine Schafer is a dainty, petulant Gretel, but her clear soprano isn’t big enough to fill the hall; there are even times when she isn’t heard over the orchestra. (Incidentally, the opera is sung not always intelligibly in an English translation by David Pountney that couldn’t be more pedestrian. Imagine what Sondheim might have done with it.)
The best singing in the production is being offered by baritone Alan Held as Hansel and Gretel’s jovially tra-la-la-ing dad, Peter, and by Philip Langridge — wearing Louis Zakarian’s face- and body-altering molds – who puts his flexible tenor to rib-tickling use as the witch. Rosalind Plowright is persuasive in the pipes department as stressed-out mother Gertrude, although she can’t reconcile the conflicting emotions she’s asked to convey as a woman who’s preternaturally mean to her children when what’s required is closer to frustration at the bare cupboard.
Everyone benefits greatly, however, from conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who demonstrates a stately understanding of Humperdinck’s debt to both his mentor, Richard Wagner, and to the German folk music on which he draws. Conversely, none of those toiling up there — and that includes the cheerfully chirping children’s chorus at the finale — benefit from Linda Dobell’s jump-around-while-smiling choreography.
This Yuletide’s many commercial enticements — chief among them Tim Burton’s interpretation of the Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler Sweeney Todd — are unusually gory. Unfortunately, this Hansel and Gretel participates in the trend, but doesn’t distinguish it.