Gretel (Christine Schafer) and Hansel (Alice Coote) are enticed to enter the witch's house in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Hansel and Gretel, with scenic and costume designs by John Macfarlane. Below: The "angels" prepare a feast for the children. Copyrighted photos by Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera.
Usually, when we say a show is fantastic, we mean that it was “excellent, superlative,” as Merriam-Webster defines the word. That’s definition No. 3. But in definition No. 1, according to the dictionary’s Web site, fantastic also means “conceived or seemingly conceived by unrestrained fancy.”
The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel fits either definition. In Richard Jones’ production, originally for the Welsh National Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the opera’s design has been reimagined by artist John Macfarlane. He created a dreary and contemporary present for the unfortunate siblings. But once they enter the haunted forest, it’s a world of wild dreams and nightmares that complements Humperdinck’s timeless family opera.
The New Year’s Day afternoon performance was shown in a live, high-definition broadcast at movie theaters around the world. In the HD broadcast, before the curtain rose, shots of children in theater seats were interspersed with images of musicians warming up and updates on how far we were from showtime. At the Regal Hamburg Pavilion in Lexington, the audience was also dotted with kids, including a family of five that was dressed as if they were at Lincoln Center.
The images that went across the screen aren’t likely to vanish from any of those little boys’ and girls’ minds any time soon: craggy trees in dark suits, a high-concept apartment serving as a forest, the “angels” in the dream sequence portrayed as ultra-portly chefs who serve the children a sumptuous dinner, complete with a fish-head maitre d’. It’s a great show for kids — old enough and mature enough to handle some frightening and grisly images — because it shows so many ways that creativity can be used to make a compelling piece of art, from Humperdinck’s music to Macfarlane’s designs and everything in between.
The danger with high-concept pieces is that the concept will overwhelm the drama. But this H&G, with an English libretto by David Pountney, is still about the title 10-year-olds (sent into the forest by poor and incompetent parents) who must survive by their wits and a faith that God will hear their prayers. The kids are, of course, portrayed by adults — Christine Schäfer, who plays Gretel, has two kids of her own. But they ably get the mannerisms of children down, from their goofy dance in the first act, to the way Hansel’s (Alice Coote) chin trembles in the forest. It makes the Children’s Prayer in Act II all the more poignant, because we feel like we are seeing kids in trouble. And they are, as in Act III, they are enticed by the witch who wants to fatten them up and eat them. Even when he’s acting like Julia Child’s evil twin, Philip Langridge’s witch conveys plenty of menace.
Metropolitan Opera general director Peter Gelb has said he wants the venerable opera house to be a place where great artists come to work, be they musicians, stage directors or visual artists. This is a production that fully realizes that goal.
The New Year's broadcast was a great alternative to meaningless college football games (yes, even the arts writer has to take a shot at the crock that is the Bowl Championship Series), and if you didn't get to catch it, it repeats at 3 p.m. Jan. 6 (in Central Kentucky at the Lexington Green and Richmond Mall cinemas). The University of Kentucky Opera Theatre will also offer up its own take on Hansel and Gretel in March.