Page 12, 1st August 2008

1st August 2008
Page 12
Page 12, 1st August 2008 — Turning a fairytale into an eco-sermon

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Turning a fairytale into an eco-sermon

Hansel und Gretel


As a priest friend said to me the other day, attendances at church have fallen to a point, now, where the only place an average person can expect to find the moral encouragement that would otherwise pass for a sermon is in the theatre. And he's probably right.

But for myself, as someone who gets more than enough moral encouragement on a Sunday morning, I don't particularly ask the theatre to adopt that task. Still less do I ask it of opera.

And of all the operas in stardard repertory that I actively don't want to be turned into a sermon. high on the list comes Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel — which is why I found Glyndebourne's vacuously sermonising new production by the French director Laurent Pelly a source of considerable irritation. As did others in the audience, judging by the seats left empty in the second half.

, Hansel and Gretel is, of course, a fairytale; and anyone who's read his Bruno Bettelheim will understand that fairytales bear deconstruction. But soapbox oratory is something else. And this was one of the most strident, charmless. intellectually half-baked and unproductive bits of soap-box tosh I've ever witnessed in an opera house.

In case we missed the point, the soap-box was in fact a presence on the stage: Hansel and Gretel's pauper family were living in it, like the desperate inhabitants of a cardboard city. When the children ventured out into the wood, it was a forest of dead trees, their leaves replaced by plastic bags and Coca-Cola bottles.

And for any blinkered bankers in the Glyndebourne audience who still hadn't caught on, we were then treated to a gratuitous mime of the wicked witch discarding her old, none too effective broomsticks for one that soared into the air leaving a trail of carbon emissions in its wake.

Yes, we were boldly marching into eco-territory. And when we finally arrived at the witch's gingerbread house it was no longer gingerbread but a temple to modem consumerism, made out of supermarket shelves stacked high with over-packaged food.

The witch herself (or rather himself: as is commonly the case with H&C, it was a man in drag) had metamorphosed into the high-flying checkout assistant of your worst nightmares, fattening up small children into small spherically challenged objects: an army of overweight juveniles whose appearance at the end, ridiculously padded, was the best joke in the show.

Reading all this. you might reasonably say to yourself: well, it does actually fit the story doesn't it? What is H&C but a piece about a house built temptingly from food by a witch who fattens up children. And as Glyndebourne offers Pelly a captive audience of the very people bankers, captains of industry, the grotesquely and irresponsibly rich — who need to be made uncomfortable about eco-issues and consumer greed, why not use this willing narrative to do the job?

The answer is that, in the process, art turns into propaganda; and it does so however laudable the intent and sophisticated the method — which in this case was not sophisticated at all. One wonders what Pelly has up his sleeve for future productions: Carmen as a polemic against knife crime? Traviata as an exposé of health issues in the sex industry? The opportunities abound.

So vacuously trite, though, was the handling of the theme here that the singers had nothing much to work with and accordingly failed to shine with any great radiance. Jennifer Holloway as a convincingly boyish Hansel and Adriana Kucerova as a slightly irritating kid sister Gretel were both attractive but small voices; and though you don't expect child roles to sound like Brunnhilde, it would be nice occasionally to hear them against the Wagnerian orchestral textures of Humperdinck's score.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke made a nastily but virtuosically camp witch — the kind of role in which he seems to specialise, given his other virtuoso drag appearance at Glyndebourne this year in the Poppea. Irmgard Vilsmaier was a forceful, hardedged Mother. Malin Christensson showed real promise in the small role of the Dew Fairy.

And the Japanese conductor Kazushi Ono, about to take over the Lyon Opera, made a perfectly good Glyndebourne debut, drawing a warm but disciplined sound from the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Otherwise, though. this show is one for the bin.

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