'Food-Heavy' Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera Leaves Us Hungry
A new production of Hansel and Gretel, sung in an English translation with production by Richard Jones, recently opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York city. So we sent Doug Quint and Bryan Petroff, the guys behind New York City's infamous Big Gay Ice Cream Truck to file a report.
The Met has a long history with Hansel and Gretel; it was the first full-length radio broadcast from The Met, live on Christmas day in 1931. The current production, which they seem to hope will stick as a holiday season regular, is a staging by the director Richard Jones. It's not a surprise that the food aspects of Hansel would be what Jones are most interested in — this is the director who gave the audience scratch-and-sniff cards for a show, and has featured cooking demonstrations onstage during intermission. He likes food, and it shows — and this production could be criticized for playing out every possible food analogy and sight gag possible.
In thinking about this review of The MET's current production of Hansel and Gretel, we kept going back to one main question: would we feel differently about this performance had we seen it during any other time of year? In all fairness, probably. But that's not what was presented. What was presented was, according the The MET's own press, an "imaginative, colorful, and food-focused staging" for their "new annual tradition of holiday presentations for families." In the words of General Manager, Peter Gelb, "It is our answer to The Nutcracker." So, it is the holiday season, and in one corner you have sugar plums and dancing fairies and in the other you have cannibalism, onstage vomiting, spousal abuse, child neglect, and murder.
Imaginative? Yes, undoubtedly. Colorful? Not in the least. Food-focused staging? Not when the first act has no food in the kitchen, the second act's dreamy staging of a banquet faces AWAY from the audience, and you have to wait for the final act's second half to get to the let down of the witch's house — forget gingerbread!
The production opened with a giant painting on a scrim of an empty plate, knife and fork. Gradually — through other paintings on scrims at the start of the other acts or between set changes — the plate changed. It became smeared with food or blood (couldn't tell which) and finally cracked as if to foreshadow the violence to come. But it was that first scrim of an empty plate that was most impactful. It remained up and static during the entire overture. With just the music to tell the story my mind went all over the place – from it symbolizing the characters hunger, to our own need for something to happen, to woefully staring up at a giant full moon. It ended up being the most memorable image of the entire production.
Jones' update mainly seems to focus on a bit of gritty minimalism. The sets, even the witch's kitchen, are industrial and bare. The costuming follows suit — with the kids in the same drab beige of their house and the adults, including the witch — in boring office grays. At one point, the pill-popping mom sat so still she actually faded into the set. Gritty minimalism seems to be a growing trend in opera, the default "how to" of modernizing productions.
The second act ends with a big tease. Hansel and Gretel fall asleep in a forest and instead of angels descending to keep them safe we get a slightly madcap banquet with trees in suits, a giant fish maitre d', and enormous cartoony chefs. They come together to create the dream meal our two leads have been hoping for their entire lives. Plate after plate is set down on the long table for them and in one grand gesture the lids are lifted. And what did they eat? No idea! The table was set up that the reveal happened AWAY from the audience. It was a let down in production shoddiness that would continue through the rest of the performance. Set changes could be heard loud and clear from behind the scrims. Numerous stage hands were visible during the show. The robotic gingerbread cake sitting atop a giant tongue could barely move around.
The MET's musicality rarely lets you down, and the talent onstage and in the pit was, as expected, first-rate: Miah Persson (Gretel) and Angelika Kirchslager (Hansel) were a pleasure to listen to and to watch. Philip Langridge might sing a great witch, but it's rarely convincing when a man is cast as a woman for no particular reason. The fat lady suit, the boring "drag" aspect of it — who needs it? Until the world is depleted of talented plump mezzos, you shouldn't look further than your own back yard. And his performance was hampered by the fat suit and the need to run around and be as manic as possible throughout his big moments on stage. By the time he belted out his big final note he was thoroughly winded and he seemed to be unable to keep up with the demand of all the action while singing. It was like listening to Madonna sing and dance at the same time: one has to give.
Part of the problem is in the original opera. The story is leaden, with much of the original fairy tale's dark bite replaced with late 19th century German Christian values, complete with angels and prayers and baked children resurrected upon the death of the witch. Only Disney could up the saccharine ante even more. The final act opens up again in the forest right where act two left off, and doesn't get to the gingerbread house until the second half of act three — perhaps the last 15 minutes of the two hour opera. One can suppose the intent of this production by Richard Jones was to bring back much of the fairy tale's original menace — but what place does Hansel taking a big zealous chomp out of the witch's gruesome charred flesh have in family holiday entertainment?
In the end, we keep going back to the empty plate that opens the opera, and the feeling it left of longing for something more. After the show ended, we realized we were still longing for something to happen.
—Bryan Petroff and Doug Quint
"Hansel and Gretel" runs through January 2nd at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York City.