Hansel and Gretel – Review – Leeds Grand
By Barney Bardsley, February 2017
Of all the fairy stories, Hansel and Gretel is perhaps one of the most gruesome. Two children are lost in the deep, dark forest. Their parents, poor and neglectful, are the very people who push them out into the cold. And in the woods themselves, the enticing gingerbread house beckons – with a vile and cannibalistic witch at the door. An image remains, pressed on my brain since childhood, of a cage, with a child caught inside, one small bony finger poked through the grid, ready for fattening and eating. Then comes the grim, but satisfying end: the witch herself pushed into the oven by her jubilantly vengeful captives, burnt to a stinking cinder.
In director Edward Dick’s debut production for Opera North, the story is given a contemporary twist – and loses much of its original horror and enchantment in the process. The woodcutter’s cottage of the fairy story becomes a high rise flat on some beaten-up housing estate. The children work at home, assembling broom handles for their angry, exhausted mother. The father is doting enough – but is an ineffectual drunk. The children are booted out, left to fend for themselves, somewhere outdoors, in the dark.
But this is a world of suffocating interiors, for we never actually leave the family flat. We must instead imagine the children’s journey into the forest, through a series of video footage, thrown on to the walls of the set – with a final metamorphosis into the witch’s house, where blown-up images of Snickers bars, Caramel and Skittles, seduce the famished children. Out of the frying pan they go, little Hansel and Gretel – right into the fire.
The design and the concept here are clever – the archetypal cruelty of the story is brought bang up-to-date: impoverished children are beaten and killed every single day in our modern world. This is no fairy story. This is real life. Any mother can turn “witch” when there is no food, no love, no hope.
But the primitive magic of the story is lost in this process: the wildness of the woods, the gargantuan evil of the witch (who is played – brilliantly enough – for humour, rather than for horror). Archetype is sacrificed to modernity. And the power of the opera loses something in translation. The voices of the singers are sometimes lost, too, in the profusion of images on stage – and the might of the orchestra in the pit.
Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera – his most famous and best-loved work – was revered from the start for its folk-style directness, its musical clarity and its juicy, seductive melodies. He was seen as a welcome antidote to the Wagnerian excess of the operatic world: this was an opera for the people, rather than an offering to the gods. And there is a definite feel-good factor running throughout this production – from the comforting dreams visited on the sleeping children by the Sandman, to the sprightly wake-up song of the Dew Fairy.
The witch, of course, gets her just comeuppance – burnt to a crisp in the oven and baked into a tasty loaf of bread. The lost children return. All, somehow, is made right. But we know, in our hearts, that the darkness has not been defeated, simply pushed to one side. And that makes the magic here taste as queasy as all those sweets in the phantom gingerbread house.
images: Robert Workman