An Enduringly Successful Subversion of Hansel and Gretel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel  (Revival Premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/ Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 21.2.2015 (GPu)
Gretel: Ailish Tynan
Hansel: Jurgita Adamonyté
The Mother: Miriam Murphy
The Father: Ashley Holland
Sandman / Dew Fairy: Meriel Andrew
The Witch: Adrian Thompson
Children: Isobel Adams, Morgan Baulch, Maddy Carver,
Sophie Cleverly, Carys Davies, Max Davies, Eve Harling,
Jamie Harrowing, Thomas Martin, Dylan Mingay, Adam
Mulligan, Owen Parsons, Ffion Prichard, Alex Rawnsley,
Rhiannon Spannaus, Osian Thomas


Original Director: Richard Jones
Revival Director: Benjamin Davis
Designer: John Macfarlane
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Original Choreographer: Linda Dobell
Revival Choreographer: Anjali Mehra
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin


Any encounter with Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel since the middle years of the twentieth century (whether as a director, an audience member or a critic) involves one major difficulty. The libretto of the opera, written by the composer’s sister Adelheid Wette) was, of course, the product of a world (words and music were written in the 1890s) very much pre-Freud and pre-Jung (or, more specifically where Fairy tales are concerned, pre Bruno Bettelheim), whereas we live in a cultural world very much shaped by such influences. For Frau Wette the story which the Brothers Grimm collected and published (and to which she made many changes, both by omission and addition) was a moral tale, in the re-imagining/ re-telling of which she produced a narrative both sentimental and sanctimonious. At the end of her text the father draws a conclusion as to what the adventures of his children have demonstrated:

 “Merkt des Himmels Strafgericht :

bose Werke dauern nicht !

Wenn die Not aufs hochste steigt,

Gott der Herr die Hand uns reicht!”

“ ‘Such is Heaven’s chastisement ;

evil works will have an end.

‘ When past bearing is our grief,

Then ’tis Heaven will send us sure


This isn’t, in truth even what the events of the opera itself have shown us (let alone what is implicit in the Grimms’ narration) – those events seem rather to demonstrate that the brother and sister mature quickly enough, without parental support, to cope with their problems. This surely is a classic case calling for the application of D.H. Lawrence’s famous dictum, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Certainly a modern producer is likely to want to save this tale from its librettist. After Freud, Jung et al. the story of Hansel and Gretel (certainly as told by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm) has a power greater than (and very different from) the meaning Frau Wette found in it. The modern director cannot strip away some of her accretions – including characters such as the Sandman and the dew fairy (and indeed the Father), or the choruses of echoes and angels – since to do so would involve the removal of much of Humperdinck’s most attractive music (and make for a very short show!). One possible strategy is to put far greater emphasis on the story’s ‘cannibalism’, on its imagery of a world of mutual predation and devouring. While such an emphasis in a sense subverts the work of the librettist it also, to quote Lawrence again, goes some way towards “[saving] the tale from the artist who created it”.

Richard Jones’s generally excellent production (first performed in 1998) is dense with the imagery of food and eating (or of their absence). The text of the opera’s libretto does, of course, contain many such references, but they are quite without the physicality (one might even say the viscerality) of this production. The curtain, indeed, rises to reveal a huge image of a grubby empty plate, framed by a knife and fork, and the audience is left to contemplate this throughout the overture (When this drop-curtain makes later appearances it grows grubbier and increasingly blood-stained). The contrast between this image and, notably during the overture, Humperdinck’s High Romantic music, administers a powerful shock to senses and mind. It is, in effect, a visual declaration of Jones’s determination to get back to what he sees (no pun intended) as the real ‘meat’ of the tale, rather than to accept Adelheid Wette’s sanitised version of things. It sets the pattern for the production (and in a sense for the dichotomy at its heart). Jones’s production presents us with pigs rather than the angels of the libretto, as everything is re-cast in terms of food imagery. The Witch’s residence is rather more a lavishly iced cake than the more ‘domestic’ gingerbread house. There are porcine chefs and waiters (no angels these, even if they have wings) preparing a banquet in the forest. The children initially assume that they are to be dinner-guests, rather than dinner. As they begin to understand the proper significance of what is happening, one realises afresh that this is, much like The Magic Flute, a narrative of the growth that makes possible a seeing beyond appearance or reputation. For all their superficial differences, Hansel and Gretel have a lot in common with Tamino and Pamina (it may be worth remembering that in one of the early versions of the story Gretel was not Hansel’s sister, but a girl found in the forest by his parents, and that the narrative ends with their marriage!).

Jurgita Adamonyté and Ailish Tynan are excellent as the two children, not just because both are assured singers of real quality. Both move like young children and behave with thoroughly appropriate gestures and body language. Adamonyté made a rather gawky (but quick-witted) boy, Tynan a boisterous girl, full of mood changes and inclined to boss her younger brother (or, at any rate, try to). Adamonyté gave a plausibly boyish tinge to her voice and Tynan had a girlish brilliance of tone.

Miriam Murphy sang very well as the Mother, well enough, indeed, to make one regret that her character has so little to do after the opening scene. Ashley Holland was a rough and ready Father, fond of his beer but with a genuine and innate concern for his children. Adrian Thompson’s Witch was striking, a kind of especially grotesque pantomime dame out of an English rather than German tradition, a pantomime dame gone beyond the merely grotesque into the realms of evil. Her well-equipped kitchen added to the plausibility that Thompson brings to the role and he copes well with the vocal demands of a part originally written for a mezzo. Indeed his moments of difficulty add to the effect! Meriel Andrews acquits herself well as both the Sandman (or at least, as his voice, since he is represented physically by a puppet) and the Dew Fairy.

Lothar Koenigs drew some fine playing from the orchestra, powerful in places, ‘charming’ in others, with lots of relatively transparent orchestral textures and with none of the excessive heaviness that Humperdinck’s Wagner-inspired orchestration can often induce. The quality of the orchestral work and the high level of the vocal contributions complemented Richard Jones’s vividly re-imagined version of the story of Hansel and Gretel, making this a revival that can still be very warmly recommended, even if another pair of siblings (Engelbert Humperdinck and Adelheid Wette)would surely not have approved of it.

Glyn Pursglove

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