Outstanding, Definitive Hänsel und Gretel at RCM Worth Seeing Twice
Humperdinck, Hänsel und Gretel: Soloists, Chorus of Echoes, Angels, and Gingerbread Children, Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra, Michael Rosewell (conductor), Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, 4 and 5.7.2016, (MB)
Humperdinck, Hänsel und Gretel
Peter – Timothy Connor/Nicholas Morton
Gertrud – Elspeth Marrow/Amy Lyddon
Hänsel – Kamilla Dunstan/Katie Coventry
Gretel – Gemma Lois Summerfield/Sofia Larsson
Witch – Richard Pinkstone/Joel Williams
Sandman – Maria Stasiak
Dew Fairy – Louise Fuller
Liam Steel (director)
Myriddin Wannel (designs)
Andy Purves (lighting)
At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, albeit with less varied tunes, I shall say again that much of the best opera in London is to be found at our conservatoires. Moreover, they seem to get better and better. I am not sure why, but it had been a little while since I had attended a Royal College of Music production; this made me realise just what I had been missing. Indeed, I think it was probably not only the best production I had seen there, but perhaps, all things considered – and there are always many things to consider when it comes to opera! – the best production of Hänsel und Gretel I had seen anywhere.
Liam Steel’s staging is the one I and many others have been waiting for, light-years away from the evasive, glossy, yet reassuringly völkisch – reassuring to the völkisch, that is – School of Cameron Mackintosh production Adrian Noble recently inflicted upon the Vienna State Opera. I can hear a self-styled operatic ‘conservative’ seething already: ‘Oh for goodness sake. Leave it alone; it’s just a fairy tale.’ Indeed, the bizarre Bernd Weikl has recently called for criminal prosecutions (!) of directors whose work he does not like, and has done just that, pointing to the New York Met (yes, you read that correctly) as a model of sensible staging and funding. Just a fairy tale? Fairy tales, as we all know, save for a bewildering number of opera directors and managers, are full of all manner of violence. So, of course, are adult constructions of something called ‘childhood’. Children do not think about ‘childhood’, claim to wish to ‘protect’ it, whilst at every twist and turn undermining it; children, simply, or rather not so simply, live their lives under the increasingly oppressive shadow of this construction. They – and we – learn a great deal from ‘fairy tales’. We certainly do on this occasion, in which abuse takes centre stage. That abuse is not so much the abuse of childhood’s construction, although we are likely also to be led to reflect upon that, as that violence against children which, more often than not, takes place within the ‘home’, within the hallowed sanctuary-cum-torture-chamber of the family.
I nearly added ‘bourgeois’ to ‘family’, then decided against it, since one of the many disturbing aspects of Steel’s production is the poverty – very much part of the ‘fairy tale’ and of the ‘original’ artwork from Engelbert Humperdinck and his sister, Adelheid Wette – in which the family lives. We begin with a cartoon, a projection of what two children, plonked in front of the television whilst their parents are out (perhaps working), are watching: David Ochs’s Who’s Hungry? Ending with the old test card – now that is something to divide us according to age – we can then focus properly, in every sense, upon the revealed stage. When we first properly see Peter and Gertrud, they are dirt poor, their unwashed, unkempt existence mirrored in and intensified by the miserable kitchen in which they play. Myriddin Wannell’s designs, here and elsewhere, are as crucial to the development of the Konzept as Steel’s detailed, yet never too-detailed Personenregie. The awkwardness of the children’s dancing is as important, in its way, as the stunted dance of Elektra in Patrice Chéreau’s shattering staging (ironically, recently taken to the Met). They are certainly damaged, then, by the abject poverty that reduces them to the all-too-convenient category of what many, too many, in this country would dismiss as ‘chavs’, and, as soon becomes clear, by something else, as yet intangible. And yet, at the same time, they are not quite broken; they can play, even if, especially in Hänsel’s case, it takes a bit of sisterly encouragement for him to break his inhibitions. (And what, we might well ask, lies behind or beneath those inhibitions? It seems a little more than mere insistence that he is a boy, not a girl, although that is clearly the starting point, in work and production.)
The milk having been spilt, the children expelled, we witness a tattooed, swaggering, Peter’s return to Gertrud, her hairstyle (‘Croydon’, is I believe, the snobbish description), condition (heavily pregnant, ‘once again’, one assumes, de haut en bas), and clothes almost the very image of what our construction of a ‘neglectful parent’ would be. Theirs is an evidently sexual relationship. (Freud would, of course, tell us of the anxiety resultant from children imagining their parents having sex, and the consequences of such anxiety.) Indeed, Peter cannot keep his hands off Gertrud; and once she realises he has, literally, brought home the bacon, and much else, she is duly, seemingly genuinely, appreciative. It is Peter, though, who asks about the children and who worries when he hears from Gertrud where they have gone. At the time, we think – or at least I thought – that that is just a matter of being interrupted in the act, and, once she has attended to her cane (which we may or may not notice at the time), her handbag and its contents, she happily accompanies her husband to look for the children.
Lest that all sound too un-Grimm-like (but what do the ‘protectors’ of the Brothers actually know of their collections?), the woods are wonderfully so. Are they in some sense a projection, a fantasy? Perhaps. Certainly some of the darkness appears to have resulted from the cartoon projections. (The second act is introduced by Jan Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky, the third by Katy Towell’s Never Wake Up; their relevance will be clear from the titles alone, but their portrayals of childhood within a general framework entertainment, not least portrayals of dolls and their dismemberment, tell us more still.) That this is a nightmare is clear, certain objects, not least the stove, the fridge, and the kitchen door, remaining constant, or near-constant, throughout all three acts. That is not, of course, to say that the nightmare is not also ‘reality’. Gnarled trees, made up sometimes, or so it seems, of strange woodland figures, enhance the sense not only of danger but of necessary enchantment (whether good, evil, or something else). The Sandman’s emergence fascinates: is he ‘just’ a vagrant with carrier bags or something more primæval, as his pleasing, traditional countenance and, indeed, Andy Purves’s lighting might suggest? We are not sure, and indeed our dreams and nightmares play a role in our interpretation.
The Evening Prayer underlines how close, through necessity, Hänsel and Gretel have become. Now he does not mock her prayer, as he had at the beginning of the first act; they protect each other. And the Dream Pantomime is, quite simply heartbreaking. Here, we see the ‘perfect’ family, the ‘perfect’ Christmas they – we – desperately want. Not only are the children the objects of that unconditional parental love society has children, rightly or wrongly, believe is the norm; not only do they receive gifts which are worth more, emotionally as much as financially, than they have likely ever to have received in their lives; not only are their parents bedecked in good, respectable middle-class clothes (slightly different, according to which cast) which they could never afford and would most likely shun even if they could; not only is a veritable feast of food and wine prepared; there is hope, and there is fulfilment of that hope. It is, in short, Christmas – or rather, our construction of ‘Christmas’, which necessarily involves, co-opts, arguably abuses children. The appearance of the Dew Fairy, at the beginning of the next act, offers deconstructive humour; where that ideal might have granted us forlorn hope, here we have someone much the worse for wear, spilling her wine from the bottle – not so much the morning after the night before as her revels not yet having ended.
An abiding childhood fear at my school, and I am sure not just at my school, was of the loner who would attract one back to his – it always seemed to be ‘his’ – car with a bag of sweets. We heard about that all the time, although no one ever seemed to have heard of it actually happening. The Witch attracts the children then, with conventional methods – just as (s)he always has. We see the gingerbread house as we should. And we see a ‘respectable’ if somewhat grotesque old lady (en travestie), her house boasting comfortable furnishings as well as edible treats, and, crucially, photographic portraits of young children, just as we would when they were reported missing – and indeed, just as we have at the beginning of the show. The children are wary, perhaps warier than usual in productions of this work; do they know something already, perhaps have some experience of what might happen? At any rate, the conservative’s ‘harmless’ fairy tale progresses as it should, the Witch capturing Hänsel in her cage, force-feeding him like a dog, ready for his baking, until the children turn the tables. There is a break in which we are blinded – well, not quite, but we certainly cannot see what happens behind. A few words of dialogue – the first act also began with some – lead us into the children’s tentative healing of the rescued other children. There is joy, but there is clearly also trauma; how could there not be? And when, full of the (apparently, at least) purest joy, their father finally discovers them, ‘true’ familial love seems to be the order of the day. Given the horrors of what have happened, this reunion is rendered all the more moving – perhaps more so on the first evening than the second, which seemed a little less dark (although that might have been more a matter of my own mood, or that of a section of the audience, which seemed determined, bizarrely, to laugh a little too often on the second evening).
And yet… Steel has a chilling twist to the tale. Gretel scowls at the children; they look at her, terrified. There is no heartfelt reunion, indeed no physical contact, there. The inebriated, genuinely beloved Peter, oblivious to all but the general rejoicing, fails to notice as she collects her (the Witch’s) wig and stick. There may be no use crying over spilt milk; how, however, could the children – and we – fail to do so in this case? And ‘case’ perhaps should have more than one meaning, for who is the narrator, reliable or unreliable, here? What actually was or is the ‘abuse’? Is it ‘real’ or the fantasy of Hänsel and Gretel, as a result of neglect and ill-temper on their mother’s part? When Gertrud collects the stick, is there just a chance she might actually be the long-suffering mother (perhaps another of our longstanding constructions: the ‘wicked stepmother’) having yet again to clean up the mess? But surely that fear on the children’s faces was all-too-real, was it not? Difficult questions indeed.
None of that would have amounted to anything very much without such excellent performances. So enthused was I by the first performance I attended that I arranged to return the following evening to hear the second cast. Our Hänsels and Gretels were not dissimilar. Both Kamilla Dunstan and Katie Coventry were excellent at portraying their character’s boyishness, without loss to genuinely lovely mezzo-soprano tone quality. (It goes with the mezzo territory, I suppose.) As Gretel, Gemma Lois Summerfield and Sofia Larsson both proved warmly sympathetic, both in vocal and stage terms. Elspeth Marrow and Amy Lyddon both carried off the difficult task of portraying, indeed exploring a more complex Gertrud than we genuinely encounter. Not only did they disturb, though; they both sang beautifully. (I am once again proud to say how lovely it is to encounter former Royal Holloway students, in this case Marrow and Coventry, making their way in musical careers.) There was greater contrast between the two Peters. Timothy Connor was fuller of swagger, disarmingly sexy; Gertrud’s mother would doubtless have thought him a bad lot, yet been charmed in person. Nicholas Morton offered a sadder, more forlorn figure, not least in vocal tone, very much emerging from the German Romantic past. Both worked splendidly; indeed, they complemented each other strikingly, offering different perspectives, even within the same production. Our two witches, Richard Pinkstone and Joel Williams, both trod with great skill the fine line between comedy and tragedy, with stagecraft second to none, stagecraft that yet did not eclipse their estimable vocal attributes. Maria Stasiak and Louise Fuller offered lovely singing and plenty of stage presence as the Sandman and Dew Fairy respectively. The RCM Chorus of Echoes and the younger Angels and Gingerbread Children rounded off a thoroughly excellent cast; their contribution may be mentioned last here, but it should certainly not be considered as least.
Michael Rosewell’s conducting and the playing of the RCM Opera Orchestra were similarly first-class. It might seem absurd to compare them to Thielemann at the Vienna State Opera last November, in the Noble production I mentioned above, and I do not really intend to do so, but hand on heart, I can say that they would have nothing to fear from such a comparison. The theatre is smaller, of course, but what we heard was plenty to fill the RCM’s Britten Theatre, and not just to fill it, to sound as gloriously Romantic, and if anything, more variegated, both in terms of texture and articulation, than that Viennese performance. A relatively small string section (184.108.40.206.2) certainly did not sound small – perhaps occasionally on the thin side on the second night, but only occasionally (and that may have been more a matter of sitting in a different part of the theatre). There were some truly ravishing solos to be enjoyed. The wind sounded vernal, autumnal, and all manner of seasonal shades in between. Rosewell’s handling of Humperdinck’s post-Wagnerian melos was impeccable, indeed often enthralling. Transitions were handled without the slightest hint of awkwardness. Humperdinck’s Wagnerisms and, I think, his anticipations of Strauss (Rosenkavalier, for instance, in both the second and third acts) too shone through in all their irresistible loveliness. Not for nothing did Strauss conduct the premiere. Equally apparent and immediate, however, was the dramatic menace necessary to convey the story and its undertones, often founded in a secure yet wandering bass line; this was no tale of opposition between pit and stage. All concerned had, quite clearly, learned from the collaboration – and, I suspect, enjoyed it very much too. I certainly did, and, as you will have gathered, it really had me think too. These, then, were performances for which I should gladly have travelled some way to see and to hear. Outstanding!