Volksoper’s Hänsel und Gretel wasn’t the ‘pantomime’ I’d expected – the kitsch sets, garish colours- to appeal to families with children. But, though based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales, it’s no mere children’s opera. Humperdinck’s opera is a masterpiece of 19th century romanticism, as the Overture – a stand-alone in concert repertoire- attests (competently played by Volksoper Orchestra under Christof Prick.)
After the surrealist, Post-modern framing of Adrian Noble’s concept for Vienna State Opera, Volksoper’s set is an authentic 19th century woodman’s cottage. In the cottage, on two levels, the mother – no it’s Gretel ( Anja-Nina Bahrmann) – is weaving in the living room. Over her, Hänsel (mezzo Manuela Leonhartsberger), sitting legs hanging out from the bedroom above, playfully throws down missiles. Actually, though shorter, Leonhartsberger is sturdily built, with long brown hair, her mezzo, rather androgynous, and quite convincing. They are not at all children, physically, yet, especially Hänsel, they’re choreographed to move and act like children. In play and in their gestures they are astonishingly natural.
Hansel, in the living room, handles the jug of milk (given to them by neighbours) for Reisbrau (rice pudding.) He dips his finger in to savour the taste. (Imagine today’s allergen-phobic children drinking milk!) A reminder of the poverty behind the romanticised industrial age. Their mother (Elisabeth Flechl), stout, comely, enters carrying a back-breaking basket, furious they’ve been playing and not done the weaving and knitting, ‘child labour’ being a reality of life. Not a single broom done? In the mother’s aria, a moving tirade of despair, there’s not a drop of milk left in the jug. (She’d knocked it over, as she’s about to give them a beating.) They’ve nothing to eat. Tired of living, she falls asleep on her hands.
Peter (Martin Winkler) balding, jovial, a formidable bass, bursts in singing. Agh, we poor people, hunger is the best appetiser (Hunger ist das tolle Tier.) His song about the rich could be a forerunner for Anatevka. Ah,reich…kann leben. TR-LA-LA. He wakes her up: the larder is empty, but he’s come loaded with food. He’s sold all his brooms and got the best price. Now shocked that she’s turned their children out into the woods, strawberry picking, warning – he makes a sign with his broom- of the witch of Issenstein.
Haensel_und_Gretel_(5)Act 2 opens in the forest, the set (Toni Businger) a wondrous green vision, a vividly realistic recreation of a forest glade. Das Mannlein steht im Wald auf…They sing the iconic folk tune – one of many Humperdinck classics. What has he done! Eaten all the strawberries. They’re both bouncing, gambolling, frolicking -constantly at play. But they have to fill their baskets before it gets dark. Something they hear is getting closer: when was the wood so gespenstig (ghostly), sings Hänsel, who spars with his fists. But it’s only the Sandman, actually quite charming: Gar nicht Arge- der klein Sandmann bin ich. Utterly enchanting, this scene of childlike innocence- not like some brats in the audience!- as the mist rises. Gretel gives him a kiss! They fall asleep after evening prayers. The veiled stage curtain reveals angels on a magical staircase, as if from heaven. They descend like a human form of exotic moths. Now they stand over the sleeping children- two of them join them. A vision out of this world. A rarity, the perfect synchronisation of Humperdinck’s sublime Traumpantomime music, enacted as ballet (Vienna State Ballet dancers.)
Is it a dream? Liebe Vöglein. Gretel awakes, at one with nature, rather like Siegfried understanding bird song (Wagner was Humperdinck’s idol.) The pines move away to reveal a cottage – looming closer. Quaint, surreal, as if on a biscuit tin, a glazed brown, like freshly baked. Some gingerbread gnomes stand either side. Wir knuspern: they pick off bits of the cottage. What’s it like ? Köstlich: wie suss, wie lecher. Delicious, sweet. How children are enticed…
A little window opens. They’re observed from the upper window by a witch. Ulrike Steinsky’s witch, hooked nose, in a peaked hat, in billowing layers of black petticoats, is fearsome. She grips them by the hand – what a grip!- Hänsel and Gretel each side of her. Hänsel pulls away, rebounds, catapults to the other end of the stage. She’s scary. Come little mice into my little home! Chocolate, marzipan, raisins, figs, almonds…Steinsky’s witch has a surprisingly high-pitched and lyrical soprano. They’re not getting away any time soon. Hänsel’s hand is pulled by the witch on one side, with Gretel, pulling the other, looking askance, disbelieving. – Come Gretel beloved…Haensel_und_Gretel_(9) Hocus Pocus. She waves her wand, its illuminated tip lights up red. they’re hypnotised! Hocus pocus, bonus jocus! She wants to mix Hansel in with almonds and raisins. The oven is now bellowing smoke, red flames from under. She actually stokes the fire, her back to it, with her petticoats. She pokes Gretel with a long stick: Gretel is looking stoned.
The witch’s song, an aria, is sung under a spotlight. Then she ascends, rising up at the back of the stage. We hear Steinsky’s voice as if she’s in the audience; then she…can it be…swings across the seats in the stalls on a wire from the boxes – frightful! Now she’s back on stage, still singing, to an extended high note. Wizard pyrotechnics.
Hänsel is in a wooden cage (at the side of the cottage). Madel Gretel, looking down from a window, bringing almonds, feeds Hänsel. He breaks free, and warns Gretel, who plays stupid and asks the witch to let her look in the oven. Somehow they push Steinsky into the oven. Breaking into the house, they retrieve bags of goodies. Screams from the oven! Children appear at the window, front of stage, everywhere. Erlösst, befreit, fur alle Zeit! Freed for all time. Gretel remarks how their eyelids are closed. So she repeats the witch’s chant to break the spell.
Their mother and father approach from the side of the stage. The children, as if caught out, uncomfortable, play on a little guiltily: their innocence intruded on. All come together, front of stage, life-size, a gingerbread effigy of the witch. Gott sich gnädig zu uns neigt: When our need is at its greatest, the Lord holds out his hand.
This production was a joy start to finish, more so unexpected. The authentic staging has to be experienced; the synchronisation between Hänsel and Gretel, in Karl Dönch’s direction, was astonishing. Or was it just this cast? Volksoper Orchestra were very adequate: only here not quite comparable to Vienna State Opera’s. This is a production not to miss. © P.R. 29.12.2018