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Witch Fuels Freudian Nightmare as Fairy Tale Gets Nasty: Review

April 22, 2013

'Hansel and Gretel'

Daniela Sindram, Anne-Catherine Gillet and Anja Silja as Hansel, Gretel and the Witch in "Hansel and Gretel." For many yeas, it has been the most popular opera in Germany after "The Magic Flute." Photographer: Monika Rittershaus/Opera National de Paris via Bloomberg

An opinion poll of U.K. parents last year revealed that one in four found Grimm’s fairy tales too scary to be read to children.

Their blacklist was topped by “Hansel and Gretel,” the well-known story of two kids abandoned in the woods and lured into the house of a witch who almost succeeds in cooking and eating them.

German parents seem less worried. For many years, “Hansel and Gretel” has been the second most popular opera on German stages after “The Magic Flute.”

In Germany, Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 “Kinderstuben- Weihfestspiel” (sacred nursery drama), as he ironically called it, is considered an ideal way to introduce children to the world of opera and is routinely performed in the Christmas season.

The Paris Opera has, at long last, discovered “Hansel and Gretel” which it’s staging for the first time.

In an interview with the opera’s in-house magazine, stage director Mariame Clement said that she was struck by the composer’s choice of that particular subject when psychoanalysis was taking shape in Vienna.

Freudian Angst

Clement is not the first to make that connection. Bruno Bettelheim, the controversial child therapist, argued that “Hansel and Gretel” reflects children’s anxieties of being deserted by their parents. The witch, he said in his book “The Uses of Enchantment,” is none other than the mother herself.

The director shares that belief. Mother and witch, though performed by different singers, are both redheads and wear the same dress.

The story is presented as a fantasy of the two children. When the father -- a bourgeois salesman of household goods, not a poor broom maker -- comes home after a successful business trip, he makes love to his wife.

That “Urszene” (primal scene) as Freud called it, is overheard by the children -- with traumatic effects.

To illustrate the difference between the real and the imaginary worlds, set designer Julia Hansen has divided the stage into a pair of two-story dollhouses: In one, real children sleep, while in the other, the singers act out their nightmares.

Birthday Cake

The forest is reduced to a few symbolic trees. The witch’s gingerbread cottage has morphed into a giant birthday cake whose real-life equivalent is brought in by the smiling mother when the kids wake up.

It’s a clever concept, yet it sounds better than it looks. Much of the opera’s poetry vanishes into thin air on Freud’s couch. It’s like serving the menu instead of the dinner.

The final apotheosis, the Parsifalian redemption -- Humperdinck was Wagner’s assistant at the 1882 Bayreuth premiere of “Parsifal” -- of the other children who have been baked in the witch’s oven and turned into a gingerbread fence, falls completely flat.

The best singing comes from Irmgard Vilsmaier’s mother and Anne-Catherine Gillet’s Gretel. Daniela Sindram’s Hansel is a bit anemic; Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s father is wobbly.

Anja Silja is a very droll Witch. She first appears as a kind old woman and then morphs into a campy nightclub singer in a glittering costume. At this point in her splendid 60-year career, not much is left of that crystal soprano, but in a role like this who cares.

Claus Peter Flor’s conducting is competent rather than inspired.

Rating: **

“Hansel and Gretel” runs at the Palais Garnier through May 6. Information: http://operadeparis.fr.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans on film and Richard Vines on Paris restaurants.

To contact the writer of this review: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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