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Serving Children (On A Platter!)

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
12/24/2007 -  & December 29, January 4, 8, 11, 23, 26, 31, 2008
Engelbert Humperdinck : Hansel and Gretel

Christine Schäfer (Gretel), Alice Coote (Hansel), Philip Langridge (Witch), Rosalind Plowright (Gertrude), Alan Held (Peter), Sasha Cooke (Sandman), Lisette Oropusa (Dew Fairy)

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Children’s Chorus, Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

Richard Jones (Production), John Macfarlane (Costume and Set Designer)

Cannibalism can be wonderfully entertaining, if you happen to be a Titus Andronicus, a Roald Dahl or a Sweeney Todd. (And if you happen to be the cannibal and not the cannibalee.) The overflowing audience of kids at the Metropolitan Opera got a good taste….er, a good sampling of people-eating in this most gory, thoroughly delicious version of Hansel and Gretel . In fact, the set designer, John Macfarlane, didn’t seem to care very much about witches or children or the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. From the first scrim curtain of a gigantic marble dinner plate to the three acts of various kitchens to the outrageous dream, this Humperdinck was concerned with food, glorious (or more literally, goryish) food.

And how did the young audience react to this ratatouille of giant tongues, monstrous chocolate cakes, a parade of Pillsbury Doughboys, and an incinerated witch? With absolute fascination. Perhaps it was the music, conducted with gossamer delicacy by Moscow-born Vladimir Jurowski. Or perhaps it was the surprising surrealism of this new Met production. Or the nearly faultless singing.

Richard Jones, the director (but known here as “Production”) could best be described as Kafka’s “Hunger Artist.” The four scrim curtains showed giant plates of food being consumed, or a huge mouth and huge tongue (one of which offers aforesaid chocolate cake), the three kitchens, one in a neat house, one in a forest (that supposedly Expressionist setting was, alas, confusing, neither kitchen nor forest) and finally, the Witch’s huge bakery with a slapstick cooking lesson.

The Dream Pantomime was a combination of Dali, Lewis Carroll, Freud and Gourmet Magazine . Instead of angels, these two starving kids dreamed of-----what else?-----a parade of Pillsbury Doughboys setting up an arboreal candle-lit table, solemnly setting platters of presumably delicious foods. The maître d’hôtel was a fish, the Act Three Dew Fairy came to wash the dishes.

It sounds ridiculous, yet was acted with such convincing pathos that one could believe anything. Perhaps only the late film director, Luis Bunuel could have brought together food, surrealism and horror with such imagination.

But then Humperdinck’s music transcends any imagination. The cliché is this opera is “Wagner for kids”, and granted, the music of nature could have ushered in Rheingold. Yet one has little doubt that Richard Strauss, who loved the opera, would have been inspired by the female duets for much of Rosenkavalier, 16 years later.

Christine Schäfer and Alice Coote were an organic unity. Their dancing was suitably awkward, their chatter happily pubescent, and they sung with gentle beauty rather than soaring lyricism.

Rosalind Plowright has a lovely voice, but came nowhere near the personality of the drunken, overwhelming Alan Held as her spouse. But we had to wait for Act III, after the light high soprano of Lisette Oropusa’s Dew Fairy for the most unusual Witch.

Richard Langridge, named here Rosa Lickspittle, was a creature to cherish, but hardly a cross-dressing monster on a broomstick. Dressed like Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire, more a common hausfrau, than a child-eating hag, Langridge’s glorious tenor was neither perverse nor sexually intimidating. Yet when creating “her” pastries, heaving flour and sugar like the Three Stooges, or when shoved into the oven-----and coming out a few minutes later as a long chocolate loaf----we were all captivated by the banality of her evil.

One hates to be churlish about the production, but the sung English words were sometimes too sugar-plumy, and often misleading. The Humperdinck/Wette/Grimm libretto never speaks of “Germany’s democracy” (though it does rhyme with “1843”), and for some reason, Father Peter here brings his wife “tea”, while the original has “ein Viertelpfund Kaffee” (a quarter pound of coffee). The endless couplets, one rhyming “boom-town” with “broom-town” were too cute for their own good.

Yet what did one need for mere words, when we dwelt in the kingdom of imagination? Nobody ever said that those etymological pioneers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, were writing their gruesome tales for children. This Met production entranced the kids at the matinee, but Richard Jones was able to combine adult obsession, fetishism, cannibalism and the most seductive music into a sumptuous manic always musical banquet.

A NOTE ON MESSIAH Last week’s review of Handel’s Messiah noted that hundreds of versions have existed over the past two centuries. The newest is heard, quite unexpectedly, in Mike Nichols’ movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Scenes depicting an endless barrage of Afghan missiles blowing up Russian gunships, with blood, cadavers and ear-piercing explosions are underlined (if barely heard) by an orchestrated upbeat version of the fugue, “And He Shall Purify”.

In the land of mordant irony, Nichols is King of Kings.

Harry Rolnick



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