Magazine article The Spectator

Without Harmful Intent

Magazine article The Spectator

Without Harmful Intent

Article excerpt

Hänsel und Gretel

Royal Albert Hall

How frightening an opera is Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel, or how frightening should it be?

The answer to the first question, if one had only encountered Hansel at the Prom performance which Glyndebourne brought to London last week, was 'not at all'. It was given in a semi-staged version, but virtually nothing of Laurent Pelly's distinctive production survived. At Glyndebourne the family live in a cardboard house; the forest the children wander into looking for berries is denuded, empty plastic shopping baskets hang from branches; and in Act III the Witch's gingerbread house is a vast construction of gaudily packaged junk foods;

while - to the alarm and distaste of many of my colleagues - the redeemed children who enter at the end are all clinically obese.

Little of this transferred to the Royal Albert Hall. The stage, behind and above the orchestra, was sparsely furnished, but that is what one expects in a semi-staging;

of the forest there was scarcely a hint, a couple of upturned brooms not really conveying the presence of nature, however despoiled;

the gingerbread house was, brilliantly, a model of the Albert Hall, hideously colourful; only the redeemed children retained their obesity, inconsequential in the context. Worst, however, was the absence of a plausible oven. It is absolutely necessary that it should look as if Gretel will be roasted, and that the Witch should be instead.

Here all we got was a fairly large cardboard box with the outline of an oven scrawled on the front; the Witch was pushed in, but all s/he could do was put her head in a hole and run off up the steps, a feeble end to evil.

Actually, even the production of which this was a watered-down version hardly wrung my withers, because I found the Witch of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke so funny, and whatever the menace and fear on stage, the music offers an almost continuously consoling commentary, so that even its threatening moments are passing frissons. In an excellent article in this year's Glyndebourne programme, which unfortunately didn't survive into the Proms booklet, Julian Johnson traces how the story is transformed from being one of the Grimms's most fearful tales to being halfway between innocuous and something like an affirmation of faith in a divine order. As Johnson rightly implies, any opera that opens as the overture to Hansel does has no harmful intent. That gorgeous hymn-like melody, richly scored for horns, later returns when Father sings, 'When our need is at its greatest, God extends His hand to us, ' and it is the foundation of the sublime pantomime, which ends Act II, where, as Johnson says, 'the emotional intensity of the orchestral music overflows the dramatic situation'; and it returns again to bring the work to a secure close. …

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