Hunger and gluttony; poverty and glamour; homelessness and tinselly angels; the reality of rags and the sparkle of magic. The stark juxtapositions evident on the Strand, during my walk from Charing Cross Station to the Royal Opera House on a mild, dry Saturday evening, were not so different to those on the Covent Garden stage that night, during the opening performance of the revival of director-designer Antony McDonald’s 2018 staging of Hansel and Gretel.
The nineteenth-century fairy tales of Grimm, Perrault and Andersen, with their timeless examinations and moral evaluations of human nature, lend themselves to translation to more recognisable worlds, and to creative subversion – as Angela Carter knew, to such stunning effect. There have been productions of Humperdinck’s ‘children’s opera’ that have aimed to illuminate the ongoing socio-political relevance of these tales, such as the recent RCM production, directed by Stephen Barlow, which gave us a slice of political satire – with ‘edges’ both saccharine and surreal.
Moreover, just as theorists and literary scholars – Bruno Bettelheim, Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, Sheldon Cashdan et al – have enjoyed finding embedded, often dark and disturbing, currents running through these narratives which are often characterised by stark juxtapositions of the playful and gruesome, the moral and the ironic, so opera directors have sometimes plumbed the darkness. At WNO, Richard Jones left no-one in doubt about the relationship between hunger and violence in a production the imagery of which included blood-traced dinner plates and a Witch’s chocolate-cake cottage served up on a curling, lurid pink tongue and framed by a gaping mouth.
Antony McDonald’s Hansel and Gretel is of a gentler disposition, offering those looking to take their children to a Christmas show which combines the magic of fantasy with the grace of ballet and the rough-and-tumble of pantomime an attractive and engaging option. McDonald’s designs open a story book and invite us to enter an Alpine paradise that turns to poverty during the overture, food-stuffed shelves fading to a barren table. The whizzing hands of the grand cuckoo clock, perched at the apex of the gilded stage-frame, signal that we are in a world where extraordinary events might occur, and characters might push the boundaries of possibility. But, the frame creates a distance, and the possibility of retreat to the real, known and safe. The opera is performed in English, too, in a splendid newly commissioned translation by Kelley Rourke, whose rhymes are clever and slick.
The ’picture-book’ ambience is maintained by a two-dimensional forest on the back cloth, and by motifs of reading. Hansel snuggles down with a copy of Brothers Grimm in Act 1, as Gretel darns holey socks. When the children, protected by fourteen guardian angels (of the paper-chain variety), sleep in the forest – on a bed of golden straw alchemically conjured by Rumpelstiltskin – Snow White (à la Disney), Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and her Prince Charming gather together on a fallen log to read them bedtimes stories from the same tome. The balletic interplay of these fairy-tale characters during the end-of-Act-2 dream-sequence presents a charming if somewhat superficial montage of fantastical worlds, as an axe-wielding fox and rifle-toting stag hint at a danger that never quite feels tangible.
McDonald takes a step into the darkness in Act 3, presenting us with a Witch’s house borrowed from Hitchcock, a knife blade spearing the roof tiles, a blood-red glacé cherry perched aloft. But, when Hansel is strapped to the chair and prey to the Witch’s evil machinations it never feels as if there’s any genuine threat to his safety. In this production, the children seem to despatch of the Witch – in a marvellous coup de théâtre as she dives into her own bubbling cauldron of chocolate – with relative ease. The chorus of resurrected children – the superb young voices hailing from Cardinal Vaughan School and The Grey Coat Hospital – may celebrate their release from her spell by raising her dismembered hand above their heads, but there’s none of the stomach-churning discomfort that Richard Jones conjured when his jubilant Hansel and Gretel feasted on chunks of roasted Witch.
I wasn’t quite sure what narrative conductor Mark Wigglesworth was trying to spin in the pit. Everything was clear and clean, the ROH players as dexterous and expressive as always. But, this fantasy seemed to me to need a bit more orchestral self-indulgence at times. The overture was quite brisk – the opening horn phrases weren’t allowed any expanse or give-and take, though they were precisely placed – and throughout the performance I rarely felt the sort of sumptuous flow of instrumental adrenalin that can serve to charge the stage action with vigour, excitement, fear and wonder. If we’re going to sink into a story, we want to sink deep and wallow! And, that means making time and space for the musical moments to tell. The Witches’ ride was aptly fast and fierce – gosh, the percussion were loud – but elsewhere, while there were lovely spotlights, especially on the woodwind (the creamy clarinet curlicue as Hansel dipped his finger into the pot was delicious), it felt a little low key, though always elegant.
The cast made for a good team. Anna Devin sometimes sounded as if she was holding back but her Gretel was well-characterised – not too bossy, plenty of sisterly wisdom and an assertive feminist streak – as was Anna Stéphany’s more bright-edged Hansel, all gangly limbs and boyish shrugs. Their evening prayer, wonderfully calm and quiet, was a highlight. Susan Bickley and Darren Jeffery were dependable as the not-so-dependable parental duo. Isabela Díaz, dressed in white frockcoat, waistcoat and top hat, was a characterful Sandman, Sarah Dufresne a tender Dew Fairy.
When I last saw Rosie Aldridge in a production of Hansel and Gretel she was performing the role of the put-upon Mother in ENO/Regent’s Park’s collaboration in June 2019. Here she was transformed from a portrait of flawed motherhood to the epitome of freakish monstrosity – a brilliantly bravura Witch who stole the show: garish costumes, commanding gestures, vocal splendour and all. It was almost a shame to witness her demise by chocolate.
Gretel – Anna Devin, Hansel – Anna Stéphany, Gertrud – Susan Bickley, Peter – Darren Jeffery, Witch – Rosie Aldridge, Sandman – Isabela Díaz, Dew Fairy – Sarah Dufresne, Echoes – Veena Akama-Makia, Sarah Dufresne, Kiera Lyness, Valentina Puskás, Miranda Westcott, Dancers – Dan Cooke, Alexander Fadayiro, Bianca Hopkins, Hannah MacDonald, Sally Owen, Audrey Page, Rosie Southall, Sophie Tierney, Róisín Whelan, Lewis Wilkins; Director and Designer – Antony McDonald, Conductor – Mark Wigglesworth, Lighting Designer – Lucy Carter, Movement Director, Lucy Burge – Associate Set Designer – Ricardo Pardo, Children’s Chorus (Cardinal Vaughan School and The Grey Coat Hospital), The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.
The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Saturday 16th December 2023.