Who’s afraid of the cannibal witch?

Fairy tales can be grim. Whether they were intended to amuse their friends or lull children to sleep, the twisted tales of the Brothers Grimm have entertained us for almost two centuries. More specifically, they are folk tales with elements of “kinderlust,” or child-like machinations. In Richard Jone’s stark production of Hansel and Gretel we are faced with a cold, desperate world where two young children stray from their bleak realities and wind up in a sinister realm of doom. There is, however, much macabre mayhem to enjoy in this staging, which had its season premiere at the Metropolitan Opera Monday night. Stripped of its fanciful setting, this fairy tale has a more ominous, yet playful tone. With bare set pieces including haunted woods that resemble more of a hunters quarters out the House of Hapsburgs, our imaginations are sprinkled with the gluttonous temptation of food. The first act takes place in a D.H. Lawrence style kitchen. The second act dining room is meant to symbolize the forest. The third act takes us to an absurd version of Julia Child’s kitchen. It could also double for a setting in the movie “Saw.” The opera moves from the real to the unreal. And fantastic food is the dramatic focus. Between each act are huge images of dinner plates and bloody silverware similar to those harrowing paintings of carcasses by Francis Bacon.

The lush and spirited score by Engelbert Humperdink seems out of place. In this case, the production does tend to overpower Humperdink’s unrecognizable tunes. It is a score that ranges from romantic dreamscapes to bewildering opulence channeling Mahler or Wagner. All the singers showcase fine voices, especially Miah Persson as Gretel and Philip Lansbridge as the witch. Erin Morley as the dew fairy queen gives an impressionable cameo with a bright smile. Rosalind Plowright as Gertrude, the mother, has a dark, brooding range. Dwayne Croft gives a full-bodied performance as the drunken daddy. Completely unrecognizable is Jennifer Johnson as the Sandman.

By far the most enchanting scene involves a dream sequence where, instead of angels, a dozen plump-faced chefs fill the dinner table with a colorful assortment of delicacies. The witch has a very twisted sense of humor, and in this story she is a laughing and bellowing figure fit for a nightmare. Overall, the theme of hunger is illuminated. The witch peppers and seasons Hansel. Gretel tricks the witch to jump in the oven, and the Gingerbread children come back to life. But where is the magical gingerbread house? Instead, we have a phantasmagoric, red-washed scrim and a giant mouth opening to reveal a tongue and an enormous chocolate cake. The effect makes one feel as if they are about be swallowed. Bon Apetit!

The production of HANSEL AND GRETEL at the Metropolitan Opera runs through January 2. For more information and to get tickets, go the website HERE.

Kila Packett

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