Composer: Engelbert Humperdinck
Conductor: Lothar Koenigs
Director: Richard Jones
Reviewer: Marina Spark
The Welsh National Opera is currently touring their production of the bleak, often frightening Brothers Grimm fairy taleHansel and Gretel. The production is more true to the Brothers Grimm than the romanticised later versions of the classic tale. The opera begins in a small, dreary, empty kitchen. Hansel and Gretel lament their empty stomachs and get very little work done. When she gets home, their mother is understandably annoyed and sends them both into the forest to pick berries. As it happens, the forest is full of wickedness and the children are in mortal danger. They don’t know it yet, of course. After an odd dream that appears to involve angels who would not be out of place in a certain television series about a Time Lord, the children are lured into the evil witch’s house. Hansel is fattened up for dinner while Gretel becomes the witch’s slave. The siblings combine forces to defeat the witch by shoving her into the oven. Once they have freed her previous victims everyone settles down to eat the witch, who has been turned into a loaf of (charred, dry looking) bread by the magical oven.
The opera, composed by Engelbert Humperdinck in 1893, has a stunning score. The movements feel somewhat modern and at times would be well placed in contemporary film. Because the plot is quite simple, the first act does feel laboured and the second act contains most of the action.
The brother/sister relationship is a welcome change to the usual romantic leads driving the action. The camaraderie between the siblings, played by Jurgita Adamonyté and Natalie Montakhab, makes the characters mischievous, playful and pretty badly behaved. They are not endearing characters and no one in this opera comes out on top. This also goes for the draconian, neglectful mother and the drunken father who between them make a series of bad parenting choices.
Particular commendation should go to Montakhab, who stepped into the rôle of Gretel after the indisposition of the usual cast member, despite not being a standing member of the cast. Her enjoyment and relish of the rôle shines through and I am sure that the WNO will want to keep her on their books.
Originally by Adelheid Wette, the libretto’s English translation is by David Pountney. Unfortunately, the words and lyrics are not sung very clearly by the cast, requiring an over-reliance on the surtitles. This is a shame where the opera is sung in the majority of the audience’s first language.
The stage and set by John Macfarlane captures the essence of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Sparse and spartan backgrounds are interspersed with monstrous images of grotesque mouths and blood-stained crockery. This marries well with the costume and lighting (Jennifer Tipton), making a suitably bleak, nightmarish environment.
On the whole this is a very enjoyable opera, but probably not one for the traditionalists or the faint hearted. Worth a look if you like your opera dark and magical.
Reviewed on 4th April 2015.