sat 20/07/2024

Hansel and Gretel, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Hansel and Gretel, Welsh National Opera

Hansel and Gretel, Welsh National Opera

Fairytale masterpiece revived as a brilliant foodie fantasy

Hansel (Jurgita Adamonyté), Gretel (Ailish Tynan) and the Terrible MouthRobert Workman

After 16 years one might expect a revival of a repertory opera like Hansel and Gretel to come up with a dusty look and frayed edges. But Benjamin Davis has done a brilliant job pumping the life back into Richard Jones’s memorable but intricate 1998 staging of Humperdinck’s pocket Wagnerian masterpiece.

For Jones, Hansel was less about fairies and witches, more about food; and in Davis’s revival they seem to be filling their faces, or imagining they are, even more of the time, from Hansel’s serial sampling of the cream at the start to the children’s serving up of the roasted witch at the end. Even their mother carries on nibbling while her husband details their likely fate in the witch’s oven.

The dream banquet in Richard Jones's Hansel and Gretel Images of eating abound, both in the staging and in John Macfarlane’s vaguely post-Sendak designs, dominated by drop curtains showing an empty (later blood-stained) plate and, most disturbingly, a vast snarling mouth like a vagina with teeth (main picture), out of which the gingerbread cottage emerges in the form of a large iced cake. If this suggests some attempt to equate the two strongest human instincts, the point is not laboured. The stage action itself is dominated by a sparkling display of irrepressible childish vitality against which grown-up fecklessness (and worse) is ultimately powerless. Whether or not the central pantomime in which the 14 angels reappear as tubby winged chefs laying a fish banquet quite matches Humperdinck’s vision of real angels descending a cloud-staircase, it’s unquestionably a more likely dream of starving children (pictured above right).

Not that starvation is all that visible among the revival’s cast. This is a touchy subject, of course, perhaps best evaded by reading the well-fed looks as a deliberate oxymoron on the director’s part. Ailish Tynan  as a cuddly, enchanting Gretel in any case fits the text (in David Pountney’s witty English), which has Hansel (the svelt Jurgita Adamonyté) as the skinny one who the witch thinks needs fattening up. Either way, they make an irresistible pair, prancing and dancing and gesticulating entirely like 10-year-olds, and singing this endlessly inventive music like the angels the production otherwise lacks. At the end they join the chorus of rescued children in one of those rare operatic scenes that touch the simplest chords on one’s emotional keyboard, and that need, as Jones perceived, hardly any staging at all.

Adrian Thompson and Jurgita Adamonyte in WNO Hansel and GretelBefore this we this we have had the ghoulish pleasure of Adrian Thompson’s plump, leering witch-cook (pictured left with Adamonyté's stuffed Hansel), horribly sinister precisely because nearly real: no broomsticks or pointed hats in this highly mechanised kitchen. Humperdinck, it’s true, wrote the part for a mezzo-soprano and orchestrated accordingly, with a lot of middle register that sometimes works against the tenor voice. But then his scoring generally, schooled at Bayreuth and with much exquisite Wagnerian detailing, can be unkind to the voices.

Miriam Murphy, as the children’s mother, rises best above the problem: what a shame she has so little to sing, virtually nothing after the first scene. Ashley Holland is her suitably blokish, drunken husband, who brings in the bacon just too late to feed his children. Meriel Andrew doubles as the Sandman (with one of the puppets that Jones later used so effectively in The Queen of Spades) and the Dew Fairy, wittily reimagined as the morning washer-up of, naturally, last night’s dinner.

Lothar Koenigs pilots them all through a performance of great refinement and immaculate pacing. What a good conductor he is when in his element. And how well the orchestra play for him, whatever difficulties there may be behind the scenes. Nor was Toscanini always loved by his players. But how they played!


Stephen Walsh is right to acclaim this this magnificent revival of Hansel and Gretel at WNO. It is a truly uplifting evening. Lothar Koenigs will be a very hard act to follow when he departs early next year. His achievements have been many, even if it has not, as Mr. Walsh hints, always been an easy ride for his players. The Toscanin analogy is interesting. I never saw the Italian maestro, but all are familiar with his legendary outbursts. I have however sat-in on many of Koenigs' rehearsals. Yes, he can on occasion be given to vitriolic outbursts (and how), but it seems to me, as a mere audience member, that all this stems from a striving for musical perfection rather than vindictiveness on his part (I hope the members of WNO's orchestra will agree with me here). Indeed, off stage he is the most charming of men. He was put there to get results and this he has achieved time and again. As one of his players said to me recently, "We are playing at a level unimaginable some years ago and all this is down to Lothar". Quite.

Makes me want to see it again all the more. What you write about nothing having dated would surely also apply to Jones's Love for Three Oranges, first appearing over 25 years ago - and yet watching it on YouTube made me realise that everything would still fit perfectly (designs by the Brothers Quay are fabulously horrid in places). And no-one will ever be in closer accord with Prokofiev than RJ.

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