Hansel & Gretel’s Royal Opera House Screening

It took me a few moments to stop sniggering at composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s name (I’ve never been able to see past Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride), but once I was over it I was surprised how much I really enjoyed this screening of Hänsel und Gretel live from the Royal Opera House.

To clarify, they went for the marginally less scary version of events: instead of being abandoned in the forest by a father who can’t afford to feed them and dropping the legendary breadcrumbs (that they could have been eating) to find their way home, Hansel and Gretel are sent to collect berries by a mother who doesn’t know there’s a witch in the woods who eats children, and is appalled when she finds out. By which point, of course, it’s too late.

Act III hits, the witch captures them and starts fattening up Hansel to make him into a gingerbread man. Never fear; Gretel to the rescue, the witch gets pushed into her own oven and the siblings release all the trapped gingerbread children, whereupon Mum and Dad find them and they all live happily ever after, as they should do. Oh, and they eat the witch.

There are some fantastic moments in which directors Mosche Leiser and Patrice Caurier exercise their artistic license. One of my favourites is when the father (played wonderfully by Thomas Allen) strides in jubilantly with food for the family – carried prosaically in SPAR bags.

Another is when the (utterly superfluous) Dew Fairy glides onto the stage to wake the children, bringing with her a cleaning trolley complete with rubber gloves and mop to clean away all the terrors of the night, or some other metaphor of that nature.

But the best is undoubtedly the angels who watch over the children as they sleep. The angels, with their beautiful white costumes, glorious fluffy wings and, um, squirrel heads. Really.

Acts I and II flow along very calmly before this, with wonderfully childlike performances from Angelika Kirchschlager and Diana Damrau as Hansel and Gretel, and a mesmerising rendition of the children’s evening prayer that brings a tear to the eye. But it’s Act III where the pace is kicked up, the real action happens and the true horror of this fairy story begins.

We are treated to a backdrop of children’s bodies hanging from the rafters, and Hansel is quickly shoved into a chest of drawers with his limbs yanked out at cringingly impossible angles. Gretel’s terror is almost tangible and there is some serious suspense and relief when the bad old witch with her hideous eyebrows ends up in the oven, and it’s all topped off nicely when the children turn up the heat and the resulting explosion blows the door off.

Overall, the performance is incredibly moving, and the theme of hunger is prevalent throughout, making the whole thing nicely relevant to today. The melodies are not overly heavy or trying for an opera, and the subtitles make everything completely comprehensible. One wonders, however, how sick of gleefully stuffing their faces on sweets Kirchschalger and Damrau are going to get.

Hänsel und Gretel runs until January 1, 2009, and is being broadcast on BBC2 on Christmas Day.
The Royal Opera House
Covent Garden

Box office: 020 7240 1200

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1 Response

  1. robert

    I watched this recording of the ROH performance of H & G, and was very moved by it simple but slightly disturbing message, so beautifully acted out by Diana Damrau and Angelika Kirkeschlager, and accompanying cast with superb music from the Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis. After all the hoo-ha on the BBC messageboards as to whether BBC 2 were going to postpone the showing on TV, it was a relief to see it finally shown.
    well done BBC execs who stood by the schedule. I see it will also be on DVD with Euroarts ?

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