Hansel and Gretel

The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday, January 8.

Such a weird opera. That’s inevitable, of course, given how creepy the fairy tale is, what with the aggravated parental abandonment and the grotesque cannibalistic witch, but still, Hansel and Gretel is such a weird opera. Even after the librettist cleaned up the story (the mother shoos her children outside, but she doesn’t actively seek to ditch them in the woods), we’re still left with the narcoleptic-pushing Sandman and the witch force-feeding Hansel before succumbing to a fiery end in the oven, her demise celebrated by a chorus of children who throng to devour her corpse, and all of it set to a Wagner-lite score. Weird.

But not without charm, I guess. Hansel and Gretel’s well-known evening prayer is lovely, and the less-familiar bits share that song’s tuneful appeal and lush harmonies. Composer Engelbert Humperdinck, a protégé of Wagner, uses intricate chromatics without ever becoming harshly dissonant, and if I can’t quite take his work seriously, that’s mainly because I can’t hear his name without thinking of Carol Kane shrieking at Billy Crystal. (The Princess Bride. Different Humperdinck. Not even remotely relevant.)

Once I got over the weirdness of adult women playing children, I enjoyed Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer’s performances in the Met’s production. The pair blended their voices beautifully, making that prayer truly breathtaking, and their fidgety, guileless performances were delightfully childish. Alan Held’s booming baritone gave Father’s first act “Tra la la la las” a rich vivacity, and the children’s chorus was positively ethereal during the third act.

I was less sold on the production itself. Mannered and cumbersome, it called attention to itself at the expense of the music. Director Richard Jones’s “dramatic focus” was food, which, to be fair, is clearly a theme of the tale. Hansel and Gretel’s family is “food insecure,” to use the modern parlance; the siblings are sent into the woods to gather berries for dinner; the witch wants to use them as food; and in the end, the villainess herself becomes food for all her gingerbread victims, freed upon her death.

So OK, focusing on food is clearly a legitimate choice, but Jones’s insistent underlining of that theme was awkward. Each act was set in a kitchen, regardless of how well that worked dramatically. The production began in the kitchen of Hansel and Gretel’s home (so far so good) before moving to the “kitchen” of the woods, complete with a long wooden banquet table, where the dream angels set a feast for the slumbering children, and a sink, where the Dew Fairy washes the dish the next day. I admit the conceit of imagining the guardian angels as magnanimous chefs was a poignant touch, but it didn’t justify the awkwardness of placing a banquet table in the middle of the woods.

The forest kitchen was fine, though, compared to the witch’s kitchen. We never got to see the exterior of the candy house (I guess it didn’t fit the kitchen conceit), resulting in a prolonged period in which Coote and Schäfer sang of the its sweet wonders in front of a foreground backdrop of an ugly open mouth (there’s that “dramatic focus” again) while the stage crew noisily changed sets behind. Finally the backdrop lifted to reveal an industrial kitchen straight out of a horror movie. Menacing and ugly, it didn’t match Philip Langridge’s goofy, unthreatening performance as the witch, and it cast a pall over the celebration at the opera’s end.

The heavy-handed production seemed silly to me. Hansel and Gretel is a simple, straightforward opera: we don’t need help parsing subtext, and the director’s look-at-me shenanigans just took away from the music, which, my Humperdinck issues aside, really is quite lovely. I’ve heard the evening prayer countless times (I played a piano solo arrangement as a child), but hearing Coote and Schäfer sing it with such earnest innocence was special. I couldn’t help but be touched.

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