Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel score is the greatest magic of all in a fine Covent Garden revival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 16.12.2023. (CC)

A scene from Antony McDonald’s Hansel and Gretel © Tristram Kenton

Director and Designer – Antony McDonald
Lighting designer – Lucy Carter
Movement director – Lucy Burge
Associate Set designer – Ricardo Pardo
Translation – Kelley Rourke

Gretel – Anna Devin
Hansel – Anna Stéphany
Gertrud – Susan Bickley
Peter – Darren Jeffery
Witch – Rosie Aldridge
Sandman – Isabela Díaz
Dew Fairy – Sarah Dufresne
Echoes – Veena Akama-Makia, Sarah Dufresne, Kiera Lyness, Valentina Puskás, Miranda Westcott

This is a production of Hansel and Gretel that is guaranteed to split opinion. But first, the opera is sung in English, which is admittedly the accepted way on these shores. This is an allegedly child-friendly production – and there were a lot of children in this Saturday night audience – so opera in the vernacular does make sense. Plus, there is Sir Charles Mackerras’s gorgeous English language recording for Chandos Opera in English (with Jennifer Larmore and Rebecca Evans) and a less famous performance from Milwaukee on the Avie label, conducted by Andreas Delfs. And Kelley Rourke’s translation works well, for sure; but it would be good to hear it in German …

Rosie Aldridge (Witch), Anna Stéphany (Hansel) and Anna Devin (Gretel) © Tristram Kenton

That this is ‘child-friendly’ yet features a house based on that in the film Psycho (with a massive knife through it) asks other questions. It does hint at an intent to speak to the adults, too, and perhaps that is underlined by the appearance of other fairy tale figures in the forest (and even a Mary Poppins reference in the Dew Fairy’s umbrella?): the idea that a forest is a physical representation of the subconscious, and therefore a receptacle for archetypes, does make sense and goes at least one layer below the surface Disneyfication of Humperdinck. And we must not forget that the Brothers Grimm were known for the ‘dark fairy tale’ …

Neither is the music childish or simple. Mark Wigglesworth conducted with a phenomenal ear for detail throughout – never have I heard so much of the score. Woodwind contributions were consistently beautiful. The Wagner influence on Humperdinck was underplayed in Wigglesworth’s reading: no problem to some, I am sure, although another fine conductor, James Conlon (music director of Los Angeles Opera), has recently written wisely on this aspect on the LAO website. The lightening of textures has another purpose, perhaps – it renders Humperdinck’s score firmly in fairy tale (it is after all, a Märchenoper) as opposed to Wagnerian myth.

The production makes much use of tech – German/Swiss pastoral scenes projected at the opening, for example (with a Swiss clock hanging from the top of the stage). A second ‘frame’ around the stage reminds us we are looking at a story, inserts a distancing, a visual, subliminal statement of ‘once upon a time …’. Anthony McDonald has clearly thought long and hard about how to approach Humperdinck’s opera, and the result works, mostly. The fate of the Witch (poor witches, they always get it) to drown in chocolate, is certainly horror-free. With production and superb orchestra in place, what was needed was a fine cast of singers …

… which is largely what we got. Anna Devin was a sparkling Gretel; the other Anna, Anna Stéphany, has a beautiful voice, rich in its lower registers, but was sometimes just too quiet as Hansel. Together, though, their Evening Prayer (Abendsegen), with gossamer strings from the pit, was a moment of purest magic.

The parents were superb. Nice to see Susan Bickley as the mother (I last saw her recently in Beijing as Judith in Bartók Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, and she was stunning there, too). Bickley brought her wealth of experience to Gertrud; she has such stage presence. Darren Jeffrey was a simply superb Peter, beautifully full-voiced, rich toned and absolutely inhabiting the role.

Isabela Díaz was bewitching as the Sandman (Sandperson?), while Sarah Dufresne, who just continues to impress time after time, was easily her equal as the Dew Fairy. And Rosie Aldridge absolutely lapped up the Witch’s role.

I do believe it has been over two decades since I last saw this opera live, and then it was at the Barbican Hall (conducted by the much-missed Richard Hickox, with a cast including Susan Gritton, Anne Schwanewilms and the much-missed Pamela Helen Stephen). I hope it is not another 20plus years before the next one, for Humperdinck’s score is surely the greatest magic of all.

Colin Clarke

Leave a Comment