Humperdinck – Hänsel und Gretel (Jancsi és Juliska)

Hungarian State Opera, Erkel Theatre, Budapest, Saturday December 9 2017

Conductor: János Kovács. Director : Rafael R. Villalobos. Sets: Emanuele Sinisi. Costumes: Rafael R. Villalobos. Choreography: Csaba Sebestyén. Hänsel: Gabriella Balga. Gretel: Nánási Helga. Peter (father): Zsolt Haja. Gertrud (mother): Atala Schöck. Witch: Bernadett Wiedemann. The Sleep Fairy: Eszter Zavaros. The Dew fairy: Ingrid Kertesi. Orchestra and Chorus of the Hungarian State Opera.

One of the many nice things about opera in Budapest is that you can usually get a ticket at the last minute. Realising I would be free on Saturday evening, on Friday I hopped on the web and for about 25 euros bought myself a stalls seat at Hänsel und Gretel, or, as here it was sung in Hungarian, Jancsi és Juliska.

The new production by Rafael R. Villalobos, who won the 7th Opera Europa Camerata Nuova opera directing prize in 2013, updated the staging to the present day. This inevitably caused the usual mismatches between libretto and action, but I think Villalobos’s idea was that today’s children can still imagine they are fairy-tale characters and that, even if they live in a city, they can still imagine they're lost in a forest and faced with a wicked witch.

The single set was the loading bay of an industrial building. A circle with a cat and a broomstick were chalked on the closed steel shutters. On the left, a yellow-painted metal staircase went up to a door in the wall, beside a row of factory windows. Under the stairs were two or three wheelie bins. Hänsel und Gretel, in grubby modern clothes, though boisterous and cheerful, were poor enough to pick and sort waste from the bins. The waste treatment angle at least made the making of brooms plausible. One of the director’s nice ideas was to have them inhale deeply and blissfully into plastic sweet bags, as if sniffing glue, dreaming of the sweets they didn’t have.

During the act 2 prelude there was a ballet of “rats” in grey overalls and masks, pushing round mobile traffic lights under a "forest" of gleaming industrial ducts. The gingerbread house was in a big, Fauchon-pink box abandoned in a supemarket trolley. Neon signs descended to reveal that the loading bay was actually at the back of the Black Cat Sugar-Free Candy Factory, and when the shutters went up we saw a lab staffed by white rats (or were they supposed to be cats? I couldn’t actually tell) with a huge oven door at the rear. The witch was a gleeful kind of (bonny) cat-woman in black overalls and a glossy pink apron with black, afro-like hair and cat’s ears, clawing the air with long pink nails. Once the witch was cooked, the white rats slipped off their overalls to reveal the children’s chorus and most of the neon signs went out, leaving just “Free” lit up (I’d wondered why the sweets had been “sugar-free”; now I knew).

Humperdinck
The whole thing was done with a light touch and great good humour. The only oddity was perhaps that, with the single set, Jancsi and Juliska got lost in their own back yard, but as I said above, the idea seemed to be that the whole thing was imagined or a dream. Most of the audience was happy enough: when the production team came out for a bow, the boos were faint and sparse.

Musically, the evening was flawless. Atala Schöck (the mother) is a Fricka and Bernadett Wiedemann (the witch) a Judit, Amneris, Azucena, Eboli, Ulrica, Erda and Waltraute. In both cases, you could tell. Zsolt Haja (the father) has a huge, clear voice – I can imagine at least one of my friends complaining that he was too loud but I prefer this kind of generosity to mannered mumbling parading as musicality. The real musicality displayed, on the other hand, by Hänsel Gabriella Balga and Gretel Nánási Helga was striking – a tribute to the quality of music education in Hungary, I thought. Gabriella Balga was especially excellent, singing with Seefried-like intensity. But above all, the orchestra, in the Erkel’s sumptuous acoustics, was magnificent – just perfect.

Here, Wenarto sings the Witch.

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