In the original fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, Hänsel
and Gretel are cast into the forest by their penniless parents simply
to be rid of them. It is a dark story, which most of the original Grimm
tales are. That's where the current San Francisco Opera production,
originally staged at Welsh National Opera, takes it cue. Directors Richard
Jones and Linda Dobell, familiar to English and Welsh audiences, take
this production way beyond a candy-coated Christmas story and explore
a multitude of psychological angles.
It's a blast of fresh air to see Hänsel and Gretel
as a couple of brats rather than blond, dirndl-clad angelic children
and the Act II forest as a dark, menacing room with walking, human trees.
If the stylized production veers off the tracks at times, at least it
makes an effort to match the Wagnerian weight of Humperdinck's score
instead of trying to be a singing Nutcracker.
Scottish conductor Nicholas McGegan, familiar to San
Francisco audiences as the music director of the Bay Area's Philharmonia
Baroque orchestra, leads a muscular performance (heard November 12)
that keeps the momentum without missing the more delicate touches. He
drew luminous sounds from the opera orchestra, maybe the best of what
has already been a strong season for the ensemble.
Welsh soprano Catryn Wyn-Davies was the standout in
a generally strong cast, negotiating all of Gretel's athletic music
with an energetic physical performance. She bounded around the stage
like a child, dancing awkwardly, jumping onto tables and falling down
and kicking her legs in the air. English mezzo Sara Fulgoni looked the
picture of a gawky pre-teen as Hänsel. She brought somewhat less
magic to her singing, but her voice blended beautifully with Wyn-Davies'
in the duets.
The other triumph in the cast was Graham Clark, the
English character tenor. Not only did he sing the witch's music with
musical flair and tremendous gusto, but he scored a knockout comedy
turn. Clad as a parody of Mrs. Doubtfire, complete with padded-out,
um, extremities, Clark commanded a batterie de cuisine with giant
bowls, mixers and blenders, flinging flour, sugar and a cloud of cocoa.
Welsh soprano Mary Lloyd-Davies and American baritone
David Okerlund sang the music competently (except for one unfortunate
vocal crack by Okerlund) and acted convincingly as the parents. Young
American soprano Greta Feeney sang the Sandman's and Dew Fairy's little
jewels stylishly. In this production, the Sandman is a puppet with its
hands attached to the black-clad singer's hands and feet, the Dew Fairy
clothed in a '40's-movie silver-lamé maid's outfit.
All this takes place on gray-colored sets, pinched
in at the sides and top to promote a sense of dread. The Act I kitchen
looks like the 1930s. Supernumeraries with branches instead of faces
suggest the forest in Act II and a long table stands in as the path.
After the Evening Prayer (gorgeously played and sung), the 14 angels
don't descend from the flies but file in wearing white chef's hats,
masks that caricature General Bismarck and white wings protruding from
the backs of their chef's jackets. They set a sumptuous table on what
had been the path. A maitre d' with the head of a fish brings formal
clothing for the children to wear and serves them soup as the curtain
That worked. I'm not so sure about making the witch's
house a miniature that looks too much like an ordinary round cake and
protrudes from a curtain cut out to resemble a mouth. And the business
at the end was clumsily done in which the children trick the witch,
kick her into her own oven, and bring back to life the children who
had been baked into gingerbread cookies. At that point it seemed the
production was trying way too hard. Fortunately, we still had the music
and the real psychological drama that preceded it. That was worth remembering.