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Crunch Time for Missing Children

The Scoping Report on Missing and Abducted Children 2011 states the following: “Children who go missing are at risk of harm. When a child goes missing, there is something wrong, often quite seriously, in that child’s life. The reasons behind missing incidents are varied, where children go missing as a consequence of specific, distinct circumstances. The serious problem of missing and abducted children is a broad, complex and challenging issue. It tends to be poorly defined, lacking in accurate statistics, and is subject to an array of responses at local, national and international levels. At the same time, there is a pressing and urgent concern for improving responses to cases of missing and abducted children. Being missing from home or a place of residence not only entails several inherent risks for children and young people, but is also a cause and consequence of other grave concerns in any child’s life.”

The FBI cites a 2002 federal study on missing children according to which a heartening 99.8 percent of children reported missing “were located or returned home alive. The remaining 0.2 percent either did not return home or were not found. The study estimated that most of missing children cases involved runaways from juvenile facilities and that only an estimated 0.0068 percent were true kidnappings by a stranger. The primary conclusion of the study was that child abductions perpetrated by strangers rarely occur. However, when they do occur, the results can be tragic.”

Tragic, indeed. Which makes the following events all the more dramatic: After a domestic altercation on the evening of April 1st, two underage siblings went missing near Munich, after being sent out of the house by their mother, to look for berries in the forest. In said forest, the boy and his younger sister eventually happened upon a cannibalistic witch. Those are rare in the local forests, but are known to pop up on occasion of a staging of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera. Twice, this year, because earlier in the season, the Bavarian State Opera gave its old, sepia-tinted Herbert List production of Hänsel & Gretel (from 1965!) one last hurrah, and now brought a new one onto the stage.

available at Amazon E.Humperdinck, Hanse & Gretel,
V.Jurowski / Met
C.Schäfer, A.Coote, P.Langridge et al.

New? Well, not that new. Munich has actually brought in the 1998 Richard Jones production from the Welsh Opera—a hand-me-down from the Lyric Chicago and MET, available for everyone to see in an outstanding performance on DVD with Christine Schäfer, Alice Coote, Philip Langridge, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Most people who will see the Munich shows won’t have seen previous productions in Wales or the US, and experiencing this fabulously, morbidly fun production live, is a whole different ballgame than watching it on the screen. Certainly Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (a nicely pronouncing, fleet Gretel), Tara Erraught (a stentorian Hänsel), and Rainer Trost (as a very wicked witch) were in splendid form, acting and singing their way through Humperdinck’s second-best opera.

It’s a children’s opera, by which people mean an opera that patrons like to bring their children to—mostly because the kids know the story, also because the music is pretty, and perhaps mostly because other patrons can’t complain about the youngsters’ presence. I, for one, love seeing kids in an opera house: An evening of honest reaction to the show is about to commence, with no pretend-guffawing to seem clever, no pseudo-behaved, misplaced reverent silence; hopefully some un-cynical, earnest rapture. A bit of a pulse, amid the formaldehyde.

That said, Richard Jones’ production is not overtly concerned with catering to (parents who bring their) kids. When the scrim to Act III goes down, it continues the would-be culinary theme with the large painted plate on it, plus fork and knife, and a smear of raspberry juice? A frowning, mildly disapproving groan is emitted by a few elderly ladies in front of me. Really? You bring your grandchild to an opera about two starving children being trapped and caged with an eye to cannibalizing slaughter. An opera where the happy end is an old woman being burnt alive… but a bit of implied blood on a plate offends your sensibilities?

They should have saved their gasps for the third act proper. Maybe the bone saws on the wall in the witch’s kitchen. Or the ready-bake children’s corpses lined up like mummified nibbles. Or when the shemale witch of this production opens the fridge to briefly reveal contents that Jeffrey Dahmer would have been proud of: A nice touch from stage and costume designer John Macfarlane. (I don’t remember that being part of the Met production, though.) The part that offends me the most—far more than child-eating witches ever could—is the food-fight, though: perhaps my protestant roots coming to the fore, and those ingrained lessons on the immorality of wastage.

Apart from standouts Trost and Müller, the glittering-glamorous South African Dew Fairy Golda Schultz delighted. Father Peter, scrawny-looking Alejandro Mareo-Buhrmester, convinced after a few minutes of warming up. Janina Baechle successfully made her character Mother Gertrud look a harridan, but was prone to a burnt-out, shrill tone that would have been suitable for the witch just as well. The orchestra, in a faultless but routine performance administrated by Tomáš Hanus, covered the singers all too often, undercutting the few occasions where the pronunciation was clear enough to follow the text. Then again, the orchestral parts of this opera are so beautiful, there’s little harm in hearing them loudly.

Low marks only for the absence of supertitles and for the increasingly pretentious, idiotic programs of the Bavarian State Opera and their flavor-of-the-day graphic stylists whose aren’t-we-awfully-clever-design this time consisted of wrapping them in parchment paper, nicely rustling all the way through the performance.

Pictures below courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl