While inflation is rising and the heating is running on economy mode, the Dutch Reisopera is touring with the German traditional answer to the chilly winter months: the heartwarming fairytale opera Hansel and Gretel (1892) van Humperdinck. By coincidence, an opera by Humperdinck will also premiere on Thursday at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam; the heavier Wagnerian, more obscure and (therefore) less played Konigkinder. Never before in music history did the Dutch Humperdinck fan experience such a festive month as October 2022.
Gustav Mahler called Hansel and Gretel a masterpiece. The warmth and nuance that now come out of the fantastic playing Noord Nederlands Orkest (on Friday in the always surprisingly good and generous sounding Wilminktheater Enschede) make clear that conductor Karel Deseure agrees with Mahler.
The overture is immediately a highlight – orchestral, but also in the visual approach. Animation film images in silhouette style give a clear outline of the prehistory. Boy meets Girl at the fair, rings and children are born, mommy dies, daddy marries the angry stepmother who sends Hansel and Gretel out to pick strawberries when there is nothing left to eat.
Nice dirty lick beards
Although you can google together shelves full of dissertations about the symbolic layers in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, which is especially famous by Grimm, Paul Carr’s direction largely stays away from the realm of Freud and psychological interpretation. His approach is straightforward, he himself speaks of ‘pure escapism’. The most striking intervention is that Hansel and Gretel (also just in the grubby pinafore and bermuda that you recognize from your own fairy tale book) do not grow up in the countryside, but in urban pushpin construction. This move to the shabby fringes of a city also immediately makes room for the second find: the witch does not live in a cookie house, but in an abandoned amusement park – including dilapidated carousel, eerie floating balloons and entrance gate with peeling clown face.
Classic horror associations present themselves, but not for long. The scene with the witch (superbly cast Michael Smallwood: gritty low, sweet high) is above all a droll cross-dressing show with filthy lick beards on kinky patent boots: fun for the whole family. The same safe abstraction typifies the Sandman/Dawman, the ambiguous mythical creature that puts brother and sister to sleep and wakes them up. It’s kind of fluffy Willy Wonka here, a little goofy, but certainly not scary or suggestive.
Deep evening prayer
The two hours flew by, because Mahler was right: Hansel and Gretel is full of beautiful songs and melodies that caress the mind like a cat’s tail. The most famous example is the evening prayer (‘Abends wenn ich schlafen geh’), which is sung here intimately and elegantly. In any case, Dorrottya Láng (Hans) and Sarah Brady (Grietje) have attracted two excellent singers. Láng is tough but not too perky: believable. Brady has such a pleasantly warm soprano that you suspect it is a good thing that the Reisopera managed to engage her before moving on to bigger houses.
The performance consists of beautiful images; crescent moon with lights, Efteling-like swan boats. Deeper thoughts about coming of age, intoxication, lust and/or parent-child relationships are not tickled up, but a big laugh at the absurd way in which the witch comes to her/his end in a popcorn machine. Pop! Airy as a cloud. That is also possible.
Read also this interview with conductor Karel Deseure