Sunday, November 9, 2014
Hansel and Gretel
Richard Strauss conducted Engelbert Humperdinck's opera, Hansel and Gretel, at its premiere in 1893. A pastiche opera, the work seems similar to the early oratorios by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Humperdinck works on a modest scale and his musical themes are accessible, crowd-pleasing, even, hummable. Many of the tunes appear to be derived from folk-songs and they have a lilting simplicity. The German words are cleverly rhymed and have a Mother Goose (or Dr. Suess) effect -- knittelvers couplets one step about doggerel. (Hansel and Gretel, often conceived as children's opera, is usually presented in English; I have no idea why the work was performed in German, an odd choice since there are very good, rhymed English versions of the libretto.) The witch's theme cites one of the melodies in Mahler's First Symphony -- this causes me to suspect that there is a folk tune common to both melodies. The opera even concludes with a few purplish bars of chorus that sound like a Lutheran chorale and have the same general sentiments: virtue triumphs and order is restored. For an opera, the work is surprisingly short and concise -- and, yet, even so, the material feels padded; Grimm's eight or nine page Maerchen is too slight, grim, and condensed to support 100 minutes of musical theater and so Humperdinck adds a couple of ballet entr'actes, a dream sequence, and two completely superfluous characters: the Sandman to put the children to sleep and a Dew Fairy to wake them up. On its own terms, the opera is successful and engaging; it's well-paced, despised the padding, and has a number of pleasant, if banal, tunes. The texture of the work is a little monotonous; Hansel is a "pants role" for a contralto and Gretel, of course, is a soprano part. For most of the opera, all of the singers are high voices -- there is only a single male role, that of the father, and his part is decidedly secondary, although his deep voice is reassuringly equated with the restoration of order and decency to the world and affords an underpinning to the chorale-like music that concludes the piece. The opera's ending is overtly gendered expressing the return of male-imposed order to a world that is otherwise inflected with the worst aspects of the female: the children's mother is a bitchy shrew and, clearly, the wicked witch is a surrogate for her -- cooking and baking, emblems of female nurture, here have gone radically off-track to signify cannibalism. The production that I saw had a couple of bright ideas and a few dim ones as well. The sets represented a tenement in a city, probably New York, and the opera was imagined as if set during the Great Depression. A difficulty that a late Victorian popular entertainment presents is extreme, and kitschy, sentimentality. In Hansel and Gretel, the pious children dream of fourteen angels who come to their rescue, figures that Humperdinck obligingly presents in an intermezzo ballet. This is too saccharine for modern viewers and so the angels have to be exiled from the story -- although this makes the Lutheran chorale concluding the piece seems a little bit out of place. Instead of angels, the director of the Minnesota Opera show had ballroom dancers appear to succor our protagonists, specifically a gent in top hat and tails and a woman in a long white gown. Seven matched couples arrayed in this way stand in for the angels and, also, represent Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers -- we have seen a huge movie poster for one of their films painted across the side of the grey, and dingy, tenement where the children live. At the climax of the ballet, little Shirley Temple appears, salutes Hansel and Gretel, and hands them Oscars. I thought this idea was charming and effective, avoiding the sickly sweet descent of the dancing angels that Humperdinck contrived for the amusement of his audience. Less effective was the idea of presenting the witch as an evil clown, the impresario of a deserted and abandoned carnival qua amusement park called Playland. This notion seemed promising but didn't really work. The climax of the opera has to take place in a gingerbread house in the dark woods and setting the action in a disreputable amusement park doesn't really make sense. (Furthermore, the idea of the shabby amusement park as a sinister house of horrors -- an idea explored by various horror directors including Tobe Hooper -- wasn't effectively developed. The setting for the gruesome last scene, accordingly, was neither fish nor fowl -- not exactly an amusement park but, also, certainly not the witch's gingerbread house in the deep, dark forest. Instead of clarity, this directorial innovation just resulted in confusion.) The singing was only adequate. The fat woman playing the dual role of the mother and the wicked witch was a good comedian, spry and light on her feet, and she gave the part of the cannibal a bawdy, over-ripe esprit that I thought was very effective, notwithstanding the conceptual muddle caused by the director's innovations in set and costume. The woman looked like an animated cupcake and, when she emerges from the hot oven, baked into that form, the scene had a sort of garish plausibility.