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Saturday, 19 December 2009 14:53

Review: The Metropolitan Opera's HANSEL AND GRETEL

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Hansel and Gretel
Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson as Hansel and Gretel in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel

Let me start this review by pointing out that my usual territory is Broadway.  But when The Metropolitan Opera asked me to come for a tour of the theatre and to review Hansel and Gretel I just couldn’t say no.  Hansel and Gretel is traditionally done by operas at Christmas time.  I’m not so certain that The Met’s production falls into the same vein.  The ballet has The Nutcracker, Radio City Music Hall has The Rockettes and its Christmas Spectacular, Broadway has White Christmas or A Christmas Carol.  The production at the Met has none of the magic, the beauty or even the stage-craft of any of the aforementioned productions.  This current production originated at Welsh National Opera and was subsequently seen in Chicago and San Francisco before being reworked for the Met.

Based on the tale by German brothers with the ironic last name of Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Hansel and Gretel has a lilting and beautiful score by Engelbert Humperdinck and a libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette.  Under the baton of Fabio Luisi the orchestra produces a lush and full sound without any amplification.  The vocals were artfully handled by Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson as Hansel and Gretel, respectively.  Unfortunately, they could not be understood.  Were it not for the small screen in the back of the seat in front of me showing sub-titles, I would not have understood a large portion of what was being sung.

Hansel and Gretel
Jennifer Johnson (top), Angelika Kirchschlager (r) and Miah Persson as Hansel and Gretel in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel

There were a number of children there the evening I attended and for the most part they seemed attentive and enamored of the fact that the witch was being played by a man, Philip Langridge acting very silly.  Unfortunately this last fact, while a delightful romp at points is really a one-trick pony.   The set is stark, at points industrial and utilizes a number of drops.  One of them is a large mouth with teeth and a tongue amidst swirls of red.  This doesn’t feel very holiday-like yet. 

Costume and scenic designer John Macfarlane has used a theatrical design akin to shadow-boxes wherein he sets a large part of the show in sets that are boxes surrounded by a false proscenium.  This pulls the focus center, not a bad idea in theory, it’s just that for the left and right third of the house, you couldn’t see any of the action happening half-way up the stage and beyond.  I can’t say it helped the unamplified voices any either.  In all honesty, this really is only a major problem in the second act which takes place on a narrow deep forest set. 

Hansel and Gretel are banished by their mother into the forest to search for strawberries after Hansel has caused his mother to spill the milk for that evening’s rice pudding.  They fall asleep in the forest when the sand man, played here by Jennifer Johnson comes and puts sand in their eyes to set them to slumber.  They then dream of seeing fourteen angels, only here it’s a fantasy food scene with twelve bulbous headed chefs who enter up-center (I think, I couldn’t see) with platters of food.  While part of the story revolves around the family’s inability to give them enough to eat, this food theme falls flat.  How much more fantastical would it have been to have created a ballet with the fourteen angels.  OK, I know, my Broadway roots are showing.

Hansel and Gretel
Philip Langridge as the Witch in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel

In the transition from the forest to the kitchen of the Witch a drop comes in creating an “in one” scene while scenery shifts upstage (incredibly loudly).  The drop is an open mouth into which slides a large tongue with a layer cake on it.  The children partake of the tasty delight.  Eventually the tongue with the cake disappears and the drop flies out to reveal an industrial kitchen replete with a KitchenAid mixer and food processor and a large oven where the Witch bakes children into ginger-bread cookies.  Around the set are children who have been turned into ginger-bread cookies.    Wait, what happened to the gingerbread house?  It says in the synopsis in the Playbill that “they see the gingerbread house.”  Alright, I can see kids wanting to go into a gingerbread house, but this is just cinderblock walls on a drab gray industrial kitchen.

My problem isn't really with the piece itself so much as it is this adaptation.  I think that director J. Knighten Smit has done an admirable job but he was obviously addled by an odd, constricting set and a really odd concept of this classic opera. 

The production plays at The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center through December 30th.  Get Tickets

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Last modified on Saturday, 19 December 2009 16:32