An opera for children or for adults? Mariame Clément’s charming new staging – the first performance of the work at the Paris Opera – does not quite solve the knotty problem of Engelbert Humperdinck’s best-known work but cashes in on a Freudian angle while avoiding details that might shock tiny tots. No children hanging in a larder so no need of a health warning to parents, as in London a few years back.
But hardly any nature either to reflect the score’s forest murmurs. Julia Hansen’s ingenious set is a doll’s house in which two late-19th-century petit bourgeois families co-exist, one real, the other a figment of the children’s imagination. There is no sense of abject poverty – “Why not just sell the upright piano?” you find yourself asking as the cast moan about hunger – but the children witness their father fretting over unpaid bills and take their fears to bed. The rest is a bad dream that ends with a birthday party.
Notwithstanding a crass interval that breaks the spell after the evening prayer – running time is just over 100 minutes – Clément makes her points with subtle touches and humour, skilfully side-stepping the usual pitfalls of two adult singers trying to behave like children. No embarrassing Shirley Temple gestures and grotesque infantile pouting mar Anne-Catherine Gillet’s fresh Gretel and Daniela Sindram’s Hänsel is convincingly boyish; both fit in even when the real children make an entrance.
The set, however, is wrong for this horseshoe-shaped theatre. The action occurs on the far left or right, rarely in the centre, alternately depriving patrons seated on the sides of any view.
But even for the lucky people with an unrestricted view, the production’s cinematic room-by-room focus on the story tends to miniaturise events, even reducing the impact of the witch’s grisly end in the oven. The contrast with her earlier dance of joy is telling: veteran Anja Silja, wrapped in a fuchsia sequined gown and green feather boa and still going strong with only a third of her register audible, is allowed the full stage width to send up showbiz vulgarity and make her mark.
As the father, Jochen Schmeckenbecher tends to push his attractive baritone too much, Irmgard Vilsmaier as his wife hoots tunelessly and the minor roles are not up to the house’s usual high standards. Happily, Claus Peter Flor’s exquisitely shaped conducting highlights woodwind and string strengths even if the brass section can sound uncouth in full force.