When it comes to Christmas-time family fare, there may be no equivalent to The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s ballet warhorse. In the world of opera, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel comes the closest. This fairytale opera of the story by the Brothers Grimm was first performed on December 23, 1893, with Richard Strauss conducting in Weimar. The opera has been associated with the Christmas season ever since, including at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, which broadcast its first complete radio performance of the opera on Christmas Day, 1931.
Yet this tale of witches, cannibalism, and abandoned children is hardly a sojourn in the Land of Sweets. Starting this week through January 6, the Met presents seven family performances in English of Richard Jones’s 2007 production that enlarges the story’s unsavory bits into an absurd, surrealist staging of giant fish-heads, baked witches, and triumphant children, with Donald Runnicles in the pit.
When considering the stories we tell children, I am generally in favor of more Brothers Grimm, not less. The nineteenth-century folktales can horrify parents as much as they delight children, who still retain an innocence around play and metaphor—realism being an invention, of course, of modern adulthood. The same goes for the elements of the Met’s Hansel and Gretel. An opera that begins in harsh reality ends in sweet fantasy—in this case, with a child-eating witch baked into a loaf of gingerbread.
The first act, set in a dingy cottage, is straight out of Tobacco Road. Mother Gertrude (Dolora Zajick) returns from work to find her hungry children, Hansel (Tara Erraught) and Gretel (Lisette Oropesa), eating a jar of cream. She punishes them by sending the siblings to the forest, as her husband, Peter (Quinn Kelsey), arrives home drunk. The staging is bleak, and the social commentary is heavy-handed, as Gertrude is turned from a wicked step-mother (who actually dies at the end of the original Grimm story) into an aggrieved spouse.
The facts of this first act are then put in contrast with the fantasy of the second and third—but, for mixed-aged audiences, a little more surrealism up front might have tempered the heavy realism of the social pageant.
Ask any child about “Hansel and Gretel” and the first thing they mention is the trail of breadcrumbs. But you won’t find a single crumb here, at least in Jones’s production. Rather than a forest, the children wander through a Magritte-like hall, with leafy wallpaper, an antler chandelier, and trees dressed in suits. After a sprinkling for the sandman (Rihab Chaieb, needlessly creepy), the children enter their Traumpantomime. Then the fun begins.
“I love this part,” my seven-year old whispered to me, as the hall door opened in a beam of light. Fourteen angels make their entrance—here as giant-headed chefs, resembling those you might find in Maurice Sendak’s “Mickey in the Night Kitchen.” The chefs lay out a feast for the hungry children as the fish-headed major duomo, in tailcoat and fins, emerges from a trap door to light the candelabras. There is much to love at this moment, as Humperdinck’s music swirls and swells under Runnicles’s baton. In person, the absurdity of the staging makes perfect sense.
The third act is a return to reality, of sorts, this time not as tragedy but farce. After long preludes defined by increasingly frightening screens—a plate becomes a mouth becomes an opera dentata—the siblings awake in The Witch’s kitchen. This time the setting is a dingy industrial floor, complete with roll-down shutters and stained metal appliances. Propped up against the walls of this Bowery torture chamber are mummified children—The Witch’s previous victims, all baked into loaves of gingerbread.
Gerhard Siegel as The Witch in drag plays up the camp, and a food fight with funneled sweets cuts the Paul-McCarthy-like mawkishness of what would otherwise be a truly horrific scene. Finally tricked into her own oven, The Witch re-emerges as a steaming breadloaf. The gingerbread children are freed from their spell, and a youth chorus signals the end of this childhood redemption story of yearning hunger ultimately satisfied in a spine-tingling finale.
So, is this “family” performance appropriate for children? Of course it is. The kids get it; my seven-year-old loved it. The real question should be, Do today’s helicopter parents still have a taste for “Hansel and Gretel”?