Humperdinck - Hänsel und Gretel

ONP Garnier, Paris, Friday April 19 2013

Conductor: Claus Peter Flor. Production: Mariame Clément. Sets and costumes: Julia Hansen. Lighting: Philippe Berthomé. Peter: Jochen Schmeckenbecher. Gertrud: Irmgard Vilsmaier. Hänsel: Daniela Sindram. Gretel: Anne-Catherine Gillet. Knusperhexe: Anja Silja. Die Sandmännchen: Elodie Hache. Taumännchen: Olga Seliverstova. Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris. Hauts-de-Seine and ONP children’s choirs.

To me, Hänsel und Gretel is the kind of work you have on CD but don't play. You buy it, listen once, think "ho-hum" and, apart from one or two catchy tunes, forget it. (You then buy Königskinder to see if it's more interesting, but end up never listening to that, either.) The music is undeniably pleasant and well-made, but bland; the only interest in the story is the witch. So a lot must depend, in the theatre, on the staging. I say "must" as, though H und G is popular in some countries, including the US, in France I've never previously had a chance to get to know it better.

Engelbert Humperdinck
The fatal flaw in Paris's new production certainly wasn't musical. Claus Peter Flor's conducting was a bit galumphing but the orchestra played well enough and the cast was excellent, though I must admit I've never been as big a fan of Anne-Catherine Gillet as everybody else seems to be, mainly because I'm not keen on rapid vibrato, but also because (my warped imagination no doubt) I sometimes detect a certain Pop Idol modernity in her singing, and find her voice a bit small for the houses she's now appearing in. I preferred Daniela Sindram's stout, manly mezzo. It may be true, as my neighbour said, that we were lucky to be on row 3 when Anja Silja was singing, as any further back people may have had trouble hearing her, apart from the occcasional signature hoot. But of course, she wasn't there so much for her singing as for her phenomenally magnetic presence, still intact and still eclipsing everyone else on stage at 73.

The flaw wasn't in the concept either. Mariame Clément sets the action in a gloomy bourgeois apartment in Freudian Vienna (making the idea of strawberry-picking in the forest incongruous) and gently teases out the Freudian threads without overdoing it - as, say, a Berlin-based director might - the main emphasis being on the dominance, in the children's minds, of their mother. The singers have doubles and the (well-directed, good-humoured) action takes place simultaneously in the real or rational world and the dreams (or nightmares) of the children, in similar but not identical sets: props change size, monsters appear out of cupboards, huge, hairy claws slide under the bed, trees sprout through the bedroom floor, the witch emerges from a giant version of the normal-sized cake on the sideboard, etc. The kids' mother, her double and the witch all have the same (hideous) maroon dress with bustle and blouse and red wig, as do a whole bunch of identical witches who emerge to dance a can-can once Knusperhexe has thrown off hers to reveal a slinky red lamé number and boa underneath, Dame Edna style. (What other 73-year-old soprano could cary that off with such radiant panache?) And at one stage, a Louise Bourgeois bronze spider (Maman) descends through a ceiling to terrify Hänsel.

No, the fatal flaw was the set design. To accommodate the double action, the set was a kind of doll's house with two storeys on the left and the "same" (subtly or not-so-subtly different) downstairs bedroom and upstairs parlour on the right, separated by a kind of alley. The rooms could be blacked out, so the action might be (very oddly) confined to one at a time, two, three or all four. The trouble with this arrangement was visibility. Only people in raised seats (i.e. the balcon and loges de face) bang in the centre of the house could see all the action. We were at the extreme left of row 3. In other words, to the side and low down. So when the action was upstairs in the left-hand parlour, we could see people from the waist up, the rest of them being hidden by the floor. When, later, the spider came through the ceiling, we couldn't at first see Hänsel was in the room. We could of course see nothing at all of what, if anything, went on in the central alley. And, again of course, we had a limited view of props or action in the rooms over on the right.

A friend who sat in the middle and therefore saw all the details assures me Mariame Clément's ideas were carried through coherently overall. But as my view had been only partial, I left with a (mistaken, therefore) feeling the concept had only been partially developed and thinking that the only thing that would persuade me to go back and see it again would be if Ann Hallenberg were cast as Hänsel with (rapidly-rising Turkish counter-tenor international superstar and "contratenorihunk" heart-throb) Cenk Karaferya as Gretel.

I've heard some people have asked for their money back...


  1. The portrait is Engelbert Humperdink, the popular singer born 1936. The composer Engelbert Humperdink died in 1921


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