Master Ionarts loved the production of Hansel and Gretel, Humperdinck's Christmas chestnut, a "holiday tradition" from the Washington National Opera that apparently did not get off the ground. That sweet, somewhat homespun production, perfect for children, could not be farther from the dark vision of the opera directed by Richard Jones, originally for Welsh National Opera, and recorded for DVD from the digital broadcast on New Year's Day 2008. The family lives in a grimy, paint-peeling, Communist-tinged hovel that could serve as a set for Wozzeck (sets and costumes by John MacFarlane). Alan Held's Father seems unbalanced and abusive, and Rosalind Plowright's Mother, desperate and dark at the roots, at one point begins to swallow a handful of pills. Later she eats greedily from the food her husband brings home, actually vomiting it back up into the sink when she realizes that her children are actually in danger. It may be a Hansel and Gretel for the age of the financial crisis, but Mrs. Ionarts and I are keeping this one away from the children.
E. Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel, C. Schäfer, A. Coote, P. Langridge, Metropolitan Opera, V. Jurowski
(released on September 16, 2008)
EMI Classics DVD 50999 2 06308 9 8
That being said, for adults it is an ingenious reading of the opera, showing the desperation of the poverty-stricken and the rapacious forces that combine to endanger children. The performances are uniformly fine, from the Gretel of Christine Schäfer and the convincingly boyish Hansel of Alice Coote, radiantly lovely together in the prayer duet. Was that really the lovely Sasha Cooke made up to look like a terrifying serial killer Sandman? The theme of hunger is beautifully transformed into a dream feast the children see instead of the 14 guardian angels, with huge-headed chefs setting the table and a fish-headed maître d' who seats them at the banquet. The surrealistic tone continues in the second act, when the witch's home appears not as a gingerbread house but a howling, bloody mouth that vomits up desserts to tempt the children. Philip Langridge is positively brilliant as a fiendish Julia Child in drag, force-feeding Hansel through a funnel and tube like a goose for pâté. ("The opera is about starvation and cannibalism, and when people are hungry they dream of food," Jones has said.) Fittingly, Vladimir Jurowski has a moody turn at the podium, a Mephistophelian Abbé Liszt in quasi-clerical collar, driving the opera to its conclusion, in which the children's chorus gathers around the blackened corpse of the witch, beating hungrily with knives and forks on the table.