Switzerland Humperdinck, Hänsel und Gretel: Soloists, Children’s Chorus and Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Markus Poschner (conductor). Zurich Opera, Zurich. 18.11.2018. (JR)
Producer – Robert Carsen
Set and costumes- Gideon Davey
Choreography – Philippe Girardeau
Lighting – Robert Carsen & Peter van Praet
Chorus master – Janko Kastelic
Dramaturgy – Fabio Dietsche
Peter – Markus Brück
Gertrud/The Witch – Marina Prudenskaya
Hänsel – Anna Stéphany
Gretel – Olga Kulchynska
Sandman – Hamida Kristoffersen
The Dew Fairy – Sen Guo
As Christmas approaches, so does Hänsel und Gretel, and like a child looking forward to opening presents, so I look forward at this time of year to a heart-warming production of just this opera. That proved to be an apposite comparison, as Canadian producer Robert Carsen has set his new production for Zurich Opera at Christmas time (which will be a mite incredulous when the last of the 17 performances with changes of cast takes place in April).
This week in Zurich the Christmas lights will be switched on, a procession of Santas, handing out gingerbread, will march down its famous shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse, accompanied by a brass band, followed by a red vintage tram driven by Santa himself, the ‘fairy-tale tram’, bedecked with lights. For a small fee, children of a certain age can ride a short distance in the tram, whilst being over-fed with sweets and biscuits and listening to winged angels telling them fairy-tales. The darker side of Christmas is also represented by ‘Schmutzli’, the Swiss equivalent of Knecht Ruprecht, or Père Fouttard in French: Santa’s dark, hooded assistant, reminiscent of the Grim Reaper, carrying a broom of twigs for administering punishment to children whose behaviour during the year has not come up to scratch. They make regular appearances at local primary schools. Such children can be whisked away and thrown into an icy stream.
Carsen brings the fairy-tale (almost) bang up to date. Hänsel and Gretel’s parents do not have enough money to pay the rent, so live in a vandalised caravan in a seedy alley bestrewn with the detritus of urban life: a car tyre, a car seat, the cardboard boxes of the homeless, beer crates, black bin bags. The walls of the alley are lock-up garages daubed with graffiti. Banksy and Basquiat have clearly been down this particular alley.
In the actual fairy-tale by the brothers Grimm, the children at night overheard their mother suggesting to their father that they take their children into the woods, abandon them and let them starve. The fable has its origins in the early seventeenth-century Thirty Years War, which ravaged Central Europe bringing brutality, plague and famine. There were even stories of infant cannibalism and alleged witches, reputed to have sacrificed small children, were regularly hunted and burned at the stake.
Carsen does not shy away from the horrors of the tale and at times one wonders whether this is an appropriate opera for small children. The opera house was crammed full of children, all well below teenage, sitting on booster seats (kindly sponsored by Zurich Insurance), often chattering throughout the performance, and were given their first taste of Regietheater. ‘I’m bored’ shouted one young lad, to the amusement of others.
Carsen’s set for the first part of the opera depicts the poverty traps of the most deprived suburbs of many towns nowadays with its neglected children playing truant, violence, drugs, alcoholism, dirty streets, unemployment and vandalism. When the mother first appears wearing a short skirt, she has clearly been on the streets and receives some money from her customer. The father arrives – dressed as Father Christmas, bearing not gifts but at least some edible provisions. The second scene lacks wintry trees with scary branches, but features Christmas trees, behind which Santa’s elves lurk. The coup de theâtre occurs just before the interval when the children fall asleep in the forest and they start to dream. The garage doors rise. The snow begins to fall and the glittering Christmas decorations in the shops are revealed and come to life: a chorister, wearing a white surplice, on a new bike, boys with water guns and balls, and numerous snowmen. The over-commercialisation of Christmas is drummed home, contrasting the difference between the rich and the poor in our society.
In the final scene, there is no hut for the Witch, no visible gingerbread. Simply a large Christmas tree with wrapped gifts around its base (which contain the sugared almonds and marzipan used to fatten up Hänsel). The Witch confusingly also appears as Santa Claus, before discarding her cloak and wielding a bloodied axe. There is a large armchair reminiscent of department stores in the Good Old Days, when children would line up to sit on Santa’s lap to receive a gift – sadly, too risky nowadays – and many children were frightened of Santa. On stage there is a fire-grate doubling as the oven, central to the plot. At the end, the missing ‘cooked’ children are depicted on photographs held by Santa’s elves, and the final twist is for the elves to drop their rather grotesque masks and reveal the children themselves. It is all quite clever, but there is little charm and precious little humour in this production (though I chuckled when the sound of a cuckoo came not from the non-existent forest but a discarded cuckoo clock). The urban delinquents in their trainers and hoodies, one on a skateboard, make regular appearances to show off their acrobatic dance abilities, though one younger critic told me the dances are twenty years out of date. It did not contribute to a particularly uplifting start to the holiday season.
Turning the mother into the Witch is common nowadays in modern productions of this opera. (I have also seen the father turned into the Witch, and I heard of one over-the-top production in Germany many years ago where the Witch was a male child molester who, instead of being to thrown into the oven, was castrated). In the version by the Grimm brothers, the children are awoken by their mother with the words ‘Wake up you lazybones’ which must echo with many a parent. The Witch wakes the children with the very same words.
Humperdinck revered Wagner. They met in Naples in 1880 and the Master invited the young composer to Bayreuth to be his assistant. Humperdinck even managed to write a few linking bars for Parsifal, which were instantly approved. Wagner died some months later and Humperdinck suffered some unproductive years. He wrote his single masterpiece ten years later – both Mahler and Richard Strauss (who conducted the première in Weimar) thought the piece a masterpiece, even though it lies in Wagner’s shadow, is hardly progressive and liberally uses well-known tunes.
Zurich Opera eschewed big names for the singers and scored partial success. Both Hänsel and Gretel were competently sung, with not quite enough volume to ride over a dense orchestration, but in the first scene their projection was hampered by having them sing from within the caravan, placed upstage. Later, when they sang front-stage, they were more audible.
Marina Prudenskaya impressed more as the Witch than the mother vocally, though she rather under-acted and her German diction was often unclear. Top of the vocal stakes was lustily-voiced Markus Brück as the Father, though why he arrives in the Witches’ hut in a coffin was beyond me.
The Sandman and Dew Fairy, both depicted as winos, sang their small but important roles effectively.
Markus Poschner in the pit perhaps gave the orchestra too much free reign on occasion, but there was no doubting their commitment and enjoyment of this gorgeous score.