Monday, November 18, 2019

SFO’s Imaginative Approach to Humperdinck

Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the second of its eight performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. A co-production with the Royal Opera House in London, this marked the SFO debut of both Director Antony McDonald and his Associate Danielle Urbas, who supervised the restaging in San Francisco. The title characters were sung by mezzo Sasha Cooke as Hansel and soprano Heidi Stober as Gretel. Yesterday’s performance also saw Adler Fellow Mary Evelyn Hangley take the soprano role of Gertrude (Hansel and Gretel’s mother) when Michaela Martens had to withdraw due to illness.

McDonald’s staging was both a visual feast and a penetrating approach to an all-too-familiar narrative. During the overture one observed Hansel and Gretel enjoying an abundant dinner with their parents. The lights on the scene then dim, and a clock rapidly advances forward in time against the rapid pace of the instrumental music. We then see the same family in abject poverty making do with what little could be brought to the table. This second view established the perspective when the overture concluded and the curtain rose on Act I.

That perspective was one of poverty as a downhill spiral. Things are so bad that they have to depend on a single pitcher of milk left by a kindly neighbor. As might be expected, bad turns to worse when the pitcher breaks during an aggressive confrontation between Gertrude and her children; and the mother sends them into the woods to pick berries. Pessimism turns to irony when Peter (the father, sung by bass-baritone Alfred Walker) comes home with a generous supply of food, purchased with the money made from selling the brooms that Hansel had been making. Peter and Gertrude celebrate his good fortune; but darkness returns when he learns that the children were sent into the woods (specified in the program book as the Black Forest), which he describes as a sinister and dangerous place.

The remaining two acts of the opera take place in those woods, and hunger remains the prevailing theme. The children eat the berries they have picked before they can bring them home. They then fall asleep in the woods and encounter the edible witch’s house the next morning. It is only with the death of the witch that appetites are finally sated.

It is worth noting that the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm were published in 1812, about half a decade after the folk poems and songs collected by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in Des Knaben Wunderhorn appeared in print. (For the record, the Wikipedia page for the Brothers Grimm affirms that the Wunderhorn collection was an influential source.) In that context it is worth singling out two Wunderhorn poems that Gustav Mahler set to music, “Das irdische Leben” (the earthly life) and “Das himmlische Leben” (the heavenly life). The first of these is all about hunger, culminating in death by starvation, while the second is about the most massive banquet one could possibly imagine. It is worth thinking about the “Hansel and Gretel” tale as a reflection on this stark opposition.

Grimm characters consulting their “source text” (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

McDonald’s staging does not underscore that opposition. Rather, he lets is grow on us as the narrative unfolds. He also makes it clear that, once Hansel and Gretel leave their house, they enter a supernatural world. It is the mythical element of the Sandman (Adler mezzo Ashley Dixon) that invokes a dream sequence in which the characters of many of the Grimm tales engage with each other (a bit in the spirit of the Once Upon a Time television series, but far less mundane). By the time the Dew Fairy (Adler soprano Natalie Image) brings the morning, the audience members (as much as Hansel and Gretel) are uncertain about whether they are back in the “real world.”

Nevertheless, it is the prevailing uncertainty of distinctions between real and fantasy that drive the libretto from the oppressive hunger of the first act to the “happy ending” of the third. The one certainty that integrates the overall narrative is the music, and Christopher Franklin conducted with a sensitivity to the intimate relationship between the phrases on the score pages and the subtleties of the narrative. Thus, even though the tunes in the first act were simple, there was always a touch of Wunderhorn irony in the musical settings of those tunes; and the rich instrumental textures for that dream sequence populated by fairy tale characters transcended the high jinks that unfolded as those characters crossed paths.

Taken as a whole, this was a production that seized attention from the opening chorale in the orchestra and held that attention all the way into the final boisterous chorus. Any sense of “Christmas spirit” may have been absent. However, McDonald’s keen understanding of the “uses of enchantment” (to appropriate shamelessly a book title) had its own spirits to deploy; and they could not have been more apposite.

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