Arts & Events

A Delightful HÄNSEL AND GRETEL at The Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday December 04, 2019 - 09:10:00 PM

Engelbert Humperdinck’s German opera Hänsel und Gretel (1893) has not been done frequently at San Francisco Opera. The last time it appeared here was in 2002, and before that one had to go back to the 1930s for San Francisco Opera productions of Hänsel und Gretel. This season, however, Hänsel and Gretel appears in a delightful co-production with Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and is scheduled here for no less than eight performances. I attended the Tuesday, December 3, performance. 

The libretto, written by Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, is based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Here it is given in a witty English translation by David Pountney. Even sung in English, Hänsel and Gretel remains steeped in German folklore and German music, both high and low. Inspired by the operas of Richard Wagner, whom Humperdinck befriended and actually worked for, Humperdinck also drew heavily on German church music and simple folk tunes in his score for Hänsel and Gretel.  

The opera begins with an Overture in which horns introduce a stately chorale that reeks of German church music. In fact, it is the music that later functions as the Children’s Prayer, and this melodic theme will be heard throughout the opera. A new, more lively theme ensues, and this is associated with the spell the witch will cast on the children in Act III. A final theme introduces music associated with the Dew Fairy who awakens the sleeping children in the forest at the beginning of Act III. During the Overture, a beautifully drawn Alpen landscape is projected on the scrim, with a simple wooden cottage at the foot of towering snow-capped mountains. 

When the curtain rises, we see the interior of this cottage, where young Hänsel and Gretel are meant to be working, but are restless and hungry. They abandon the tasks set for them by their mother and begin dancing and singing. When their mother returns home, she is furious with them for neglecting their chores. In this family of poor mountain folk, children are supposed to do their share of the work that supports the family’s meagre existence. However, the high spirited children may be hungry, but they won’t be denied their moments of fun. 

The cast for this Hänsel and Gretel production featured mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Hänsel, and soprano Heidi Stober as Gretel. Both singers are veterans of many roles here at San Francisco Opera, and they were delightfully paired here as brother and sister. In a trousers role, Sasha Cooke as Hänsel often sought to comfort Gretel; but at many moments it was Heidi Stober’s Gretel who proved more astute in avoiding danger. Vocally, both Cooke and Stober were outstanding; and dramatically they both seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves in their brother-sister roles. Even when scolded by their mother and sent off into the forest to pick strawberries, the children showed resilience. 

Meanwhile, Gertrude, the children’s mother, sung here by mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, and Peter, their father, sung here by bass-baritone Alfred Walker, have argued over their poverty, then made-up when Peter reveals all the foodstuffs he has brought from town by selling the broomsticks he makes. However, when Peter asks where the children are, and is told Gertrude sent them into the forest to gather strawberries, Peter scares the wits out of his wife with lurid tales of a wicked witch who dwells in the forest and eats children. (Here is where the Brothers Grimm indulge their well-known penchant for sadism of sorts.) At the close of Peter’s horrific tale, the parents rush out in search of their children. 

Without pause, an orchestral prelude introduces the famed “Witches’ Ride.” The curtain rises on a forest glade where Hänsel and Gretel pick (and eat) strawberries. When night comes and the children realise they are so deep in the forest they can’t find their way home, they listen to the call of a cuckoo, rendered here by percussionist Victor Avdienko, who plays a flute-like instrument. Then they settle down to sleep on a carpet of leaves. The sandman, sung here by mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, an Adler Fellow, kindly sprinkles sand in their eyes to coax them gently to sleep. Before dropping off to sleep, the children intone their evening prayers. 

There ensues an orchestral “Dream-Pantomime” sequence where the sleeping children are watched over by various familiar characters from other tales by the Brothers Grimm. This is a nice touch. Cinderella and her Prince Charming appear, as do Rapunzel, Little Red-Riding Hood, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, and a Wolf. Watched over by the Sandman, who reads a book of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, these characters are joined by angels who guard the sleeping Hänsel and Gretel. The orchestral music of this Dream sequence, like that of the Overture, was adroitly conducted by Christopher Franklin. Choreography of the “Dream-Pantomime” was by Lucy Burge. 

Act III begins with an orchestral Prelude based on an ancient song-game. The Dew Fairy arrives to welcome the dawn. She dances about sprinkling dew drops. Then the Dew Fairy is transformed from a ballet dancer to a singer, and soprano Natalie Image, an Adler Fellow, sings a lovely aria. Gretel awakens first and wonders at the beauty of the forest. She nudges Hänsel awake, and they tell each other their dreams of angels watching over them. Then, suddenly, out of the morning mist the witch’s house appears. The children cry out in astonishment, especially when they realise the house is made of gingerbread and other delights. 

Cautiously, at first, they begin to nibble. A voice is heard, “Nibble, nibble, little mouse. Who’s that nibbling at my house?” The children think they have simply heard the wind in the trees, and they resume nibbling. Then the voice is heard again, intoning “Greedy little mousey, come into my housey.” Then the witch suddenly appears, sung here by tenor Robert Brubaker. With the appearance of the witch, all sorts of special effects are utilised by Director and Production Designer Antony McDonald. Sudden explosions of loud noise are heard, and strobe lights flood the Opera House. Even the lights of the Opera House’s famed chandelier spin out of control! 

The witch, insidiously portrayed by Robert Brubaker, casts spells over the children and seeks to fatten up Hänsel even as she prepares to cook and eat Gretel first. At one point, Gretel grabs the Witch’s magic wand and releases Hänsel from the spell that has immobilised him. Now fully aware of the danger they face, the children wait for the chance to toss the Witch into her own huge chocolate mixer, where she drowns. Now the story takes a moralising turn that is rooted in 19th century German culture. Good has triumphed over Evil, Heaven has answered the children’s prayers, dead children return to life, their eyes suddenly able to see once more, and Hänsel and Gretel are joyfully reunited with their parents, as the opera comes to a close. 

One last performance remains of Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel; it is on Saturday, December 7, at 7:30 at the War Memorial Opera House. If you’re looking for engaging family entertainment in the holiday spirit, you couldn’t ask for anything better than this delightful opera production. Don’t miss it.