ACT I. Hansel and Gretel have been left at home alone by their parents. When Hansel complains to his sister that he is hungry, Gretel shows him some milk that a neighbor has given them for the family’s supper. To entertain them, she begins to teach her brother how to dance. Suddenly their mother returns. She scolds the children for playing and wants to know why they have got so little work done. When she accidentally spills the milk, she angrily chases the children out into the woods to pick strawberries.
Hansel and Gretel’s father returns home drunk. He is pleased because he was able to make a considerable amount of money that day. He brings out the food he has bought and asks his wife where the children have gone. She explains that she has sent them into the woods. Horrified, he tells her that the children are in danger because of the witch who lives there. They rush off into the woods to look for them.
ACT II. Gretel sings while Hansel picks strawberries. When they hear a cuckoo calling, they imitate the bird’s call, eating strawberries all the while, and soon there are none left. In the sudden silence of the woods, the children realize that they have lost their way and grow frightened. The Sandman comes to bring them sleep by sprinkling sand on their eyes. Hansel and Gretel say their evening prayer. In a dream, they see fourteen angels protecting them.
ACT III. The Dew Fairy appears to awaken the children and the two find themselves in front of a gingerbread house. They do not notice the Witch, who decides to fatten Hansel up so she can eat him. She immobilizes him with a spell. The oven is hot, and the Witch is overjoyed at the thought of her banquet. Gretel has overheard the witch’s plan, and she breaks the spell on Hansel. When the Witch asks her to look in the oven, Gretel pretends she doesn’t know how: the Witch must show her. When she does, peering into the oven, the children shove her inside and shut the door. The oven explodes, and the many gingerbread children the Witch had enchanted come back to life. Hansel and Gretel’s parents appear and find their children. All express gratitude for their salvation.
Scenes from the production accompanied by caterwauling in German.
Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. First farce. Now opera.
If you’ve ever seen the Richard Gere/Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman, you may well remember this line from when he takes her to the opera:
“Your first reaction to opera is very important. If you love it, you will always love it. If you don’t love it, you can learn to appreciate it, but it can never become part of your soul”.
Well, I don’t love it. I marvel at the voices sometimes, I know how difficult it is to sing, I appreciate all the technical problems of staging. Most of the time, the costumes and sets are fascinating. I enjoy reading about the history of productions and infamous mishaps on stage and the personalities involved. But it mostly leaves me cold. So I really started out on the back foot with this. Gloom was descending on me at a rate of knots, dispelled in part only by reading the long list of stupid, upper class names on the “Benefactors” page in the programme (I don’t know Frank and Silviane Destribats, but I wish I did, if only so I could hang over their back fence and take the piss out of them). At least, I thought, I know the story this time round, and it will be pretty to look at. As there are only about 8 people in it, they’ll have chucked all the money at the sets and costumes so it will be visually interesting, and it will be dark and scary and deeply psychological and, who knows, it might even have some funny bits in. Oooooh dear.
Hansel and Gretel (interestingly, not Hansl and Gretl as they are correctly spelled in German) didn’t live in a tumbledown thatched cottage but, from the looks of the bedroom that we discovered them in, in a chi-chi modern apartment with pastel-coloured walls with furnishings by Ikea. Gretel is apparently meant to be darning stockings (OK, she can legitimately do this in her bedroom), but Hansel has been set to work making brooms. In the bedroom? Eh? The family are apparently on their last loaf of bread, but neither of the children look hungry– Gretel, in fact, looked as though a bit of gay starvation would have done her the world of good. Both the beds have comfy duvets, and both the children are clean and well-dressed (although Hansel seems to have put his lederhosen on over his pyjamas for some reason. Perhaps he’s low on blood sugar and is confused, poor mite). A precious jug of milk, donated by a neighbour, gets smashed – and Gretel finds it funny for some reason. They’re sent off to pick berries. Gretel puts on a red dufflecoat that makes her look more like Not-so—Little Red Riding Hood (think Paddington as played by Dawn French). Their father arrives – cue for lots of polite laughter from the audience as he’s carrying a Spar bag (no, Mr. and Mrs. Destribats – not a bag from a spa, but from Spar, a low-cost food emporium where poor people go. Their logo is a pine tree. The cottage is in the middle of the forest. Oh, how funny! How witty!)
Deep in the forest, (a pretty set, which you will see in the YouTube stills, but very limiting direction-wise) the children pick about 8 strawberries and then eat them from a polythene bag. They drop the bag, adding environmental damage to the crime of disrespecting jugs of milk. The forest changes from a place of light to a place of darkness and foreboding. The children sing (at length) about 14 angels coming to watch over their sleep – at which point 8 angels with teddy bear faces and light-up wings (enough to give anyone the heebie jeebies) conjure up visions of a perfect Christmas (which seems to consist of a log fire, their parents in evening clothes and gaily wrapped parcels which contain sandwiches). They fall asleep, not having noticed that they’ve been shortchanged by 6 whole angels. Maybe there’s a credit crunch in heaven.
The Dawn Fairy wanders on, looking like Glinda the Good after a rough night out, with her magic cleaning trolley and rubber gloves, cleaning up the forest. She sings about 8 notes and disappears for good, poor cow. She’s probably got enough bars rest before and after to actually get a part-time job in a local pub somewhere. The children spy a gingerbread house through the trees. Cue amazing set change, with house dropping onto the set and making everyone in the audience go “ooooooohhhhhh!”? No. Someone pushes a dolls house onto the stage. Its about the size of a large box of cornflakes. The witch appears. Black pointy hat, warts, broomstick? No – bad wig, carpet slippers, zimmer frame. Not that far removed from Catherine Tate’s Gran, although she appears to have her tits out at one point. Eh? Have I missed something? Cue enormous set change – the forest turns into witch’s kitchen, complete with industrial ovens. The witch waves her rubber gloves and imprisons Hansel in the kitchen unit with only his head sticking out. No cage then? No. Witch pulls a dead child from the fridge, plonks it into a gingerbread man mould, pipes some buttons on (this is the one and only point in the entire evening when both me and Him Indoors laugh) and sticks it in the oven. Gretel waves rubber gloves at Hansel and frees him from the kitchen unit. They push the witch into the oven, which explodes. All the gingerbread men fall out of the cupboard and turn back into posh little boys and girls from the Tiffin School (I kid not, its really called this – and there was me thinking that “tiffin” was what tea and sponge fingers was called during the Raj). They sing excruciatingly badly, off key and out of time and all ends happily.
Well, if I was expecting darkness and wit and magic, I didn’t get it. This could have been so visually interesting – but it wasn’t. It was, as Craig Revel Harwood said on TV recently:
We rush off and catch the train. There is a posh couple in evening clothes sitting opposite and its clear that they too have just seen the opera (sharp intake of breath – could it be the Destribats, en route to their Destriperch from which they hang upside down all night?) They didn’t enjoy it either, from the sounds. Him Indoors gives me “that look” which says “Don’t even think about it” – and then proceeds to turn into Brian Sewell, agreeing with the Destribats just how dreary the production was and how there are no great productions of anything any more dharlings and no great stars left and I’m very familiar with the work as I sang in it during my youth and I sat there and ate the end of my scarf out of sheer effing embarrassment all the way home.