Scene an overture is an art in itself. Some directors don’t have enough of the music available and add a piece of quiet drama beforehand. The fairy tale opera Hansel and Gretel van de Nederlandse Reisopera begins with an exemplary staged overture that immediately draws you into the story.
In an animation with silhouettes by the studio Tiny Giants, we see the wedding day of Hansel and Gretel’s parents. So a happy young family. Then the mother’s funeral and the father’s second wedding anniversary, all accompanied by wonderful sounds from the orchestra pit.
Because the Noord Nederlands Orkest plays the music of the German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) fantastically, the brass instruments are round in tone, the strings full and graceful at the same time. And how well the Belgian conductor Karel Deseure can dose expressive tools such as dynamics and accents. Everything sounds well-considered and caring, yet spontaneous: the bouncy nursery rhymes, the pointed witch’s trip, the fairy-tale-like passages that give voice to an idealized childhood.
In the opening scene, we see the miserable little apartment where the family now lives. Unsightly damp stains, broken windows and tattered furniture. How could it come to this? Maybe because of war. Later, when the children are on their way to the forest to pick strawberries, we see video footage of a dilapidated stairwell and a disaster-ravaged city quarter.
In the beautifully designed set by Gary McCann, who is also responsible for the imaginative costumes, there is little room to move. It emphasizes the poverty, but it creates a problem for director Paul Carr because folk songs and dances are characteristic of the first act.
First when Hänsel and Gretel play with each other (“Little brother, come, dance with me”) and then when their father comes home drunk with, unexpectedly, a bag full of groceries (“Rallalala, hopsassa!”). The singers do their best to jump and twirl with joy, but the limited space gets in the way.
Fortunately, this has no consequences for their singing performance. Thanks to echoes such as Eddie Wade and Anna-Maria Dur, who play the father and stepmother, you can hear how much Humperdinck learned from Richard Wagner without slavishly imitating him. Hänsel and Gretel are played strongly by Dorottya Láng (who shares the role during the tour with Maya Gour) and Sarah Brady, respectively. None of them have a childish sound, which suits this version, where the brother and sister are already teenagers.
The highlight of this opera is usually the fairytale night scene in the forest, and this production does not disappoint. The witch does not live here in a gingerbread house, but in an abandoned amusement park, where the children once came with their parents.
So when the sneezing sandman (Kelly Poukens) sends them to dreamland of magic sand, they fly skyward with a flock of swan boats through a shower of down feathers. But not before Láng and Brady’s voices blend as smoothly as hot chocolate and whipped cream in the evening prayer, Abends, will ich schlafen geh’n.
A decapitated clown statue and a broken merry-go-round promise to give us a scare when the witch appears, but tenor Michael Smallwood’s discarded, attention-seeking drag queen evokes pity rather than fear.
Threatening to turn the kids into baked goods only seems part of her quasi-sexy, bizarre act. Will this witch eat or entertain the children? The choice of direction to not make the witch a scary figure takes the tension out of the ending. When Gretel pushes her into a popcorn machine, it feels like an anticlimax.
Fortunately, there is still the heartwarming finale with the chorus of children freed from the witch’s black-lacquered claws. Don’t let the reviewer’s reservations stop you from going to this beautifully crafted musical treat. Escaping reality in a popcorn-and-gingerbread fantasy: who doesn’t need that right now?
The king of the fairy-tale opera
Engelbert Humperdinck is the undisputed king of adventure opera due to the popularity of Hansel and Gretel (1893), but several fairy tale-based compositions were written by him. Hansel started as a play by Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette, for whom he wrote a number of songs. Their edits of snow white and The Wolf and the Seven Children belongs to the same theater genre, the Liederspiel.
Humperdinck also wrote two other adventure operas. The Sleeping Beauty (Sleeping Beauty), with an unnecessarily complicated libretto, was his greatest theatrical failure. Queen cheeks, his second most important work, can be seen this month at the Dutch National Opera (6 to 22/10). Acclaimed for his interpretation of Richard Wagner’s operas, former chief conductor Marc Albrecht conducts this dark adventure with unmistakable Wagnerian DNA.
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel
★★★ is reproduced
By Nederlandse Reisopera. Suitable for spectators aged 10 and over.
30/9, Wilmink Theater Enschede. Tour until 5/11.