Metropolitan Opera audiences have long been accustomed to the traditional take on popular fairy-tale opera “Hansel and Gretel,” as exemplified by the company’s last production, which was in the repertory for 35 years. Director Richard Jones reimagines the work from a much darker point of view, but his concept is not as revolutionary as one might think. It owes a lot to David Pountney’s brilliant 1987 staging for English National Opera, which got there first and did it better. The Met is even using Pountney’s translation, though it emerges unintelligibly from most of the singers.
This overpraised production began at the Welsh National Opera, where it won Jones an Olivier award, and has since appeared at Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera. With the help of set and costume designer John MacFarlane, Jones does create a few striking stage pictures. But his idea of setting the action in a series of “kitchens” (his term) makes sense only for the first and third acts (presented here with a single intermission).
Although the second act is very specifically meant to take place in the haunted forest, Jones sets it in a vast empty dining room — not a kitchen. The leaf-patterned wallpaper, deer-antler chandelier and humanoid figures with branches for heads are not enough to evoke the story’s setting. Kids in the audience will be confused, as will many adults.
Hunger is the main theme of this production, as exemplified by its sets and by MacFarlane’s scene-change show curtains, one of which depicts a place setting, the other a huge, gaping maw.
When Hansel and Gretel fall asleep in the woods, they dream not of angels watching over them, but of giant chefs serving them a banquet, presided over by a major-domo who is an enormous tuxedoed fish. The sequence makes for an amusing spectacle along the lines of “Beauty and the Beast.” In this food-focused production, it’s no surprise that the witch eventually is pulled out of the oven medium-rare and devoured by the two starving protagonists.
Jones has brought the action more or less into contemporary times, emphasizing Hansel and Gretel’s sordid home life, including abusive parents. It’s all very reminiscent of Pountney’s ENO version, which was set in a British council-flat development during the grim years immediately after World War II. Pountney, however, enriched the story with Freudian overtones by having Hansel and Gretel’s mother and the witch portrayed by the same singer, and by depicting the children getting lost in a seedy park infested with trench-coated, cigarette-smoking child molesters.
By shoehorning this production into the “hunger” concept, Jones strives for relevance but ends up limiting himself. He also renders the first half of the opera way too static — a miscalculation for an audience packed with children.
Fortunately, Jones is blessed with a good cast, despite their poor diction. Alice Coote and Christine Schafer have real chemistry as Hansel and Gretel. Coote is wonderfully boyish, especially when she attempts some frenzied dance moves, and the diminutive Schafer indeed looks the part of an unkempt young girl. Neither gets much of a chance to let loose vocally in these character roles, though Schafer spends a few moments in the lovely upper part of her range.
As their mother Gertrude, former soprano Rosalind Plowright unleashes a harsh but boomingly powerful mezzo. Cutting a tall, spindly figure onstage, she does not yet seem to have settled on whether to play the part for laughs or for true despair. Peter, her husband, is sung by baritone Alan Held with charisma, robust tone, and the only clear diction in the cast. Veteran tenor Philip Langridge dons Julia Child drag and voluminous prosthetics to play a decidedly housewifely Witch; he throws himself into the role with great aplomb and real comic flair.
The small parts of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy are nicely sung by Sasha Cooke and Lisette Oropesa. The latter, in particular, has a mesmerizing sweetness to her sound and is a delight to watch as a 1950s housewife in apron and rubber gloves.
Vladimir Jurowski conducts Engelbert Humperdinck’s glowing score exquisitely. It’s unfortunate he has to contend with an audience that chatters through the overture and interludes as if this were a TV show.