Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel sparks holiday season

We each have our own recipe for making our holiday season magical. For me and my family a performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s wonderful Hansel and Gretel has frequently been one of the key ingredients, though over these many years we’ve found lots of other festive things as well to do at Lincoln Center on every side of the Plaza.

Unlike Tchaikovsky’s ballet The NutcrackerHansel and Gretel is not actually about the holidays in any specific way. The children are sent into the woods by their mother Gertrude to pick strawberries, hardly possible in late December. Mom is unhinged by despair, true, but she probably knows it’s not winter.

My German grandmother making gingerbread cookies and, as she baked, singing in her own fashion the songs from the opera in the original more or less time-stamped my seasonal associations with the tunes. Also, background here, Humperdinck first wrote the music to verses written by his sister Adelheid as a little Christmas entertainment for the children. Only later did he enlarge its scope to a quite respectable faux-Wagnerian opera, though, happily, not as long as one. Hänsel und Gretel premiered in Weimar on December 23, 1893, with Richard Strauss on the podium. It was almost immediately successful.

The original fairy tale as told by the Brothers Grimm, on which the opera is based, is about two resourceful children who cleverly thwart their evil stepmother’s plan to abandon them in the deep woods to die. Poor the broom maker’s family is, and, worse, with famine in the land, there is not enough food to feed four.

Aleksandra Kurzak as Gretel is comforted by Christine Rice as Hansel

Aleksandra Kurzak as Gretel is comforted by Christine Rice as Hansel

New in 2007, the current production by Richard Jones, with imaginative sets by John Macfarlane, focuses on hunger. Hansel and Gretel’s magnificently bizarre dream in the second scene is all about lots of food, not about angels who, in the previous version at the new Met in 1967, literally hovered over them during the Dream Pantomime, lowered by wires from above.

Here the extent of their misery in the first scene is amplified by the stark, bare white washed kitchen, devoid of anything remotely comforting; the opera’s final scene, the Witch’s kitchen, is an industrial size bakery, hardly very inviting or cozy either. The Jones/Macfarlane production is far more nightmarish than the Met's ’67 setting: here even the children’s dream of an elegant meal for two, which you’d think would be a good dream, like just the thing to put a big dent in that hunger, is fraught with disturbing images, including a fish (the maître d’) and attendant trees in tuxedos, the latter identified by their branching hairdos. Then twelve Tweedledees I think serve up the evening’s fare, marching in as the Knights of the Holy Grail from Parsifal. In fact I’d swear the Sandman was conceived as a Richard Wagner look-alike, as if he had come back from the dead to oversee his apprentice’s work. I could be wrong.

Gretel is served the house special Zuppa di Pesce

Gretel is served the house special Zuppa di Pesce

What works well in this production is that the children are feisty, active and positive. I very much loved every minute of Aleksandra Kurzak’s Gretel. Such a presence, such a voice! She’s conceived as more of a ‘you go girl!’ character, less passive than some Gretels I’ve seen previously. As her debutante role, Christine Rice’s Hansel was a fine pesky brother; each retains a playful spirit in spite of the dangers that threaten. Michaela Martins was a mother Gertrude driven mean by desperation.

Of the men, long time Met veterans Dwayne Croft presented a strong, supportive father Peter and Robert Brubaker crafted a wild Witch. Though most of the singing in this opera is mid-range, each principal gets her or his chance to let a solid note loose.

Robert Brubaker as the Witch. Not your Grandmother's kitchen is it.

Robert Brubaker as the Witch. Not your Grandmother's kitchen is it.

Carolyn Sproule, also in her Met debut, was a soprano surprise as the Sandman, given her gruesome costume; Ying Fang was the sweet Dew Fairy, who also does dishes.

The Children’s Chorus Director is Anthony Piccolo; Sir Andrew Davis led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra through an enchanting reading of Humperdinck’s wonderful score. I still find Hansel and Gretel magical. Take the opportunity to find the magic for yourself and your family.

The performance scheduling and ticket pricing of this holiday run of Hansel and Gretel encourages bringing the kids. There were several in the seats around me last night. Parents should know that, though sung in English, much of the text is unintelligible and it goes by so quickly. The subtitles help, of course, but reading them through, my issue, distracts from the total experience of each present moment. Probably best to prep the story (a synopsis can be found on the Met’s website (www.metopera.org)) or better yet, watch the DVD of this production at home ahead of time (available on the Internet or at the Met Shop). Knowing the music is always a plus. Also, the first act is about an hour. Good to know in making decisions.

Be advised: the performance running time is 2 hours 10 minutes, including one intermission.

Review performance date: December 18, 2014.

Photos: Cory Weaver.

Make it special. Happy Holidays to all!

JRS