Germany Humperdinck, Hänsel und Gretel: Soloists, Children’s Chorus of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (chorus master: Vincenz Weissenburger), Staatskapelle Berlin / Sebastian Weigle (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 11.12.2017. (MB)
Peter – Arttu Kataja
Gertrud – Marina Prudenskaya
Hänsel – Katrin Wundsam
Gretel – Elsa Dreisig
Witch – Jürgen Sacher
Sandman – Corinna Scheurle
Dew Fairy – Sarah Aristidou
Achim Freyer (director, designs, lighting)
Geertje Boeden (assistant director)
Petra Weikert (assistant designer)
Sebastian Alphons (lighting)
Jakob Klaffs, Hugo Reis (video)
Elena Garcia Fernandez & Larissa Wieczorek (dramaturgy)
The first performance of Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera, Hänsel und Gretel, on the night before Christmas Eve, 1893, in Weimar, was conducted by Richard Strauss. The work’s second staging, in Hamburg, in September of the following year, was conducted by Gustav Mahler. It reached Berlin, this very house, then home to the Royal Court rather than the State Opera, the following month, and has belonged to the world ever since. Alas, that very popularity and a strange, seemingly related, insistence on presenting a tale of child abuse with sugar coating have tended to lead to the opera’s underestimation, or at least to insipid presentation, even non-interpretation. What, after all, is a fairy tale, if it is not an invitation to interpretation, for children, for adults, for all? For those to whom the Brothers Grim(m) were something a little more interesting than Eric and Donald Trump Jr, this would be mind-numbingly obvious; alas, audiences being what they often are…
Achim Freyer does not penetrate so deep as Liam Steel in his Royal College of Music staging; when I saw that, I more or less instantly realised it was the production for which I had been waiting much of my adult life. (Yes, as I never tire of pointing out, much of the best London opera takes place in our conservatoires.) But nor does he try to; his concerns are different. He is certainly not pandering to reactionary ‘tastes’, in the manner of Adrian Noble in his Vienna Disneyfication. Where Freyer excels, as, at his best, he always does, is in the creation of a world, both childlike and perhaps not. I say ‘perhaps’, since who is to say what is ‘childlike’ and what is not, or indeed what its opposite might be. Is that, again, not part of the essence of fairy tales? Clowns are present, of course; there is that undeniable element of Freyer house style, but why not? It does not look, like sometimes his staging have, as merely more of the same, or one size fits all; nor does it feel like it. The sense of theatre is keen, not without framing, for instance when the wondrous flick of the lighting switch opens the metaphorical story book at the opening, yet without ever seeming pleased with itself, or too clever-clever. Children, of whatever age, do not like that; often they are right not to do so. We never see the ‘real’ Hänsel and Gretel, or rather the ‘real’ singers, not really, for their masks cover their faces several times over. But what is ‘real’? And what is ‘real’ here? Perhaps the plot interests Freyer less: a pity, I think, but he has other concerns. And the dream-like sense of proceedings, if only in retrospect, acquires a more darkly, yet also brightly, sense of the political and its possibilities, with a final unveiling of the sign ‘REVOLUTIO’. Unfinished business, or a joke? Dreamers or anti-dreamers, from Novalis to Brecht, may – or may not – have their say. Life with Freyer, life in many fairy tales, is a circus; yet think of what a circus, that theatre of cruelty, of the absurd, of society and anti-society, involves, suggests, incites.
If only the musical side of things had lived up to those possibilities. Sebastian Weigle’s conducting was, alas, throughout Kapellmeister-ish in the negative sense. ‘Light’, as if attempting a demonstration that Mendelssohn were not worth listening to, almost entirely without Wagnerisms, let alone the kinship with Strauss Christian Thielemann in that Vienna performance had imparted, rightly or wrongly to the score, the greater sin of Weigle’s reading was listlessness. I do not think I have ever heard the first act drag so; nor have I heard the music sound less magical. Weigle is certainly no Strauss or Mahler. It would be a hard task indeed to have the Staatskapelle Berlin sound bad in this music, and it did not; but this great orchestra was sadly undersold throughout, achieving a few moments of wonder despite, not on account of, its conductor.
It was not a vintage night for singing either, although Elsa Dreisig sparkled as Gretel. Katrin Wundsam sometimes sounded rather harsh as Hänsel. Marina Prudenskaja and Arttu Kataja sang well enough as their parents, likewise Jürgen Sacher as the Witch, but perhaps needed something more in the way of inspirational musical leadership – I shall never forget Colin Davis in 2008 – to lift their performances to something more memorable. There was hope, though, that in a subsequent revival, not only better conducted, but perhaps more engaged with the possibilities hinted at by Freyer, something more than the sum of the parts might emerge. That hope is, after all, the fuel on which opera houses, especially houses now reborn such as this, should burn.