The Met’s dark, disenchanted “Hansel and Gretel” offers a Freudian nightmare for all ages

December 17, 2011
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Kate Lindsey as Hansel and Alekandra Kurzak as Gretel in Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

The first thing that the audience sees in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is a black scrim on which a huge dinner plate, a knife and a fork are painted. A ghostly reflection of a face glowers within the dish. The image unsettles because it hints at the hunger that the opera’s two siblings and their parents suffer, and also because supposedly civilized human beings most often use those implements to shred and devour the flesh of other species.

A paradigm of holiday cheer, Hansel and Gretel tells not only of ravenous appetites but of cannibalism and incinerated bodies, as well. For the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, the folktale made known the danger of “unrestrained oral greed.” In Anne Sexton’s gloss on the story, the mother figure sends her children into the woods as a “final solution” to the family’s hunger, and the witch force-feeds Hansel goose liver to fatten him up, presumably using a fowl’s foie gras to make the human variety in a cycle of exquisite cruelty.

It’s gruesome stuff. But Adelheid Wette, Humperdinck’s sister and librettist, sweetened the tale with pastries and a remorseful mother, and David Pountney, whose superb English translation is sung at the Met, adds his own dark, goofy verbal humor. Certainly the children at Friday’s season premiere of Hansel and Gretel were unfazed. They cheered lustily when the witch was sent to her death by roasting and endorsed the show as “totally gross” (to quote one enthusiastic young man).

Richard Jones’s delectably disenchanted production, which had its company premiere in 2007, depicts Hansel and Gretel as the sullen, twitchy offspring of a frazzled, self-medicating mother and a drunken boor of a father. Their cramped and mouldering home brings to mind the grimly austere flat in television’s The Honeymooners. In the opening scene, the Gretel of Aleksandra Kurzak picked through her hair for lice and at one point attempted to quell her hunger by gnawing on the bare wooden table. Kurzak is a captivating actress, whether sidling up to the witch’s gingerbread house (here, a marzipan cake) with greedy eyes, scampering about with a chocolate-smeared face, or struggling to walk in the fancy shoes that Gretel receives in the dream pantomime. Her pretty, pearly soubrette voice is heard to its best advantage in Gretel’s infrequent flights into the stratosphere. In the role’s lowest reaches Kurzak was nearly inaudible, and in its middle range (where most of the music sits) her tone sometimes turned thin and wan.

Kate Lindsey, whose Nicklausse was the sparkplug in last season’s Met revival of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, turned in another witty, gangly, and utterly endearing performance as Hansel. Her fruity tone and Kurzak’s lustrous voice blended beautifully in the children’s evening prayer, and her physical humor—Hansel’s galumphing attempts to mimic Gretel’s dance, his dazed-with-hunger ogling of cream and sweets—was brilliant.

As Peter, the children’s father, the baritone Dwayne Croft was in booming, lustrous voice. He acted up a rowdy, sodden storm and, almost alone among the cast, enunciated every word he sang with exemplary clarity. (Why has the Met of late cast him so infrequently in leading roles?) Michaela Martens managed to be both hateful and sad as Gertrude, Hansel and Gretel’s mother, blithely stuffing her face with Peter’s unexpected bounty of food while her children were off in the forest. While her voice had a nasty edge at first, it is a big and bold thing, and she used it generously and to powerful effect.

Jennifer Johnson Cano brought cultivated tone and a sense of mystery to the role of the Sandman (in this staging, a weird, shrivelled old gnome). The Dew Fairy of Ashley Emerson woke her charges with sudsy dishwater. Emerson played the role as a kind of cross between Tinkerbell and Betty Boop; she sang splendidly and dominated the stage during her brief appearance.

As the witch, the tenor Robert Brubaker also brought to mind some illustrious forebears: Mrs. Doubtfire and Sondheim’s Mrs. Lovett, with a sprinkling of Julia Child. Like Croft, Brubaker projected the text distinctly; and like Gertrude, he was a nightmare of a mother, smothering Hansel’s face in her (Rosina’s) ample bosom and cramming food down the boy’s throat with a funnel and hose—a grotesque parody of an umbilical cord. Brubaker acted with pizzazz and sang well, but it would be good to hear a woman (preferably the same one who portrays Gertrude) in this role.

While this Hansel and Gretel staging is disenchanted (but no less remarkable for that), plenty of magic was being wrought in the pit. Robin Ticciati is not yet thirty years old, yet he will succeed Vladimir Jurowski as music director of the Glyndebourne Festival in 2014, and he is a wizard. Humperdinck’s opera can curdle into gluey Wagnerian soup in less skilled hands, but Ticciati in his Met début led a buoyant, rapturously beautiful account of the score. The dream pantomime glowed with exuberant colors, with night’s voluptuous undertow sounding a note of danger, and the children’s dance of triumph after Rosina is burnt coruscated with giddy cruelty. (Richard Strauss, who led the world premiere of Hansel and Gretel in 1893, surely had that sparkly bit in mind when he composed Elektra, his own yarn of unhappy parents and children.) The Met’s children’s chorus under Anthony Piccolo added their own radiant charm to a dark and delicious Hansel and Gretel.

Hansel and Gretel runs through January 7, 2012, with early evening curtain times and several midweek matinées.; 212-362-6000.

2 Responses to “The Met’s dark, disenchanted “Hansel and Gretel” offers a Freudian nightmare for all ages”

  1. Posted Dec 18, 2011 at 3:56 pm by Helen A.

    Kate Lindsey was indeed brilliant! What an actress and voice.

  2. Posted Jan 07, 2012 at 3:13 pm by John K.

    Hansel slapping on a Hitler moustache made of chocolate and doing the Landler with Gretel (in the PBS broadcast version)while the witch writhed in the see-in oven was beyond grotesque. Stuff like that really happened and we should never treat it as a joke.