Teatro Regio in Turin staged Vittorio Borrelli’s enticing mise-en-scène of Humperdinck opera, a sparkling of colours, popular melodies, fairy-tale hues and moments of enchantment.

Engelbert Humperdinck was not probably very concerned with an innovative or unusual interpretation of Brothers Grimm’s tale. The plot is indeed clear and in compliance with the story everybody knows from childhood: Hänsel und Gretel. Two poor children lose their way in the forest and end up in the house of a witch who transforms children into marzipan biscuits. However, the composer was not trying to delve into psychological aspects or make reference to the subconscious, unlike some recent adaptations. It was 1891 when the opera was finished: Freud's theories of the subconscious were just starting to gain ground.

However, the linearity of the story is accompanied by an elaborate and opulent score, whose brightness is particularly evident in the plastic capacity of depicting all the sensations, the fears, the smells and sounds which the two children experience. It is a triumph of musical onomatopoeias that resound through the forest: just to take an example, the unforgettable call of the cuckoo at the beginning of Act II. Even the prayer of Hänsel and Gretel as they enter the wood is an idyllic moment of dreamy and delicate beauty which echoes Lutheran chants. 

Director Vittorio Borrelli realised a refined mise-en-scène focusing on the tiny, playful and colourful aspects of the plot: the minuscule cartoon-house of Hänsel and Gretel and then the garish one of the witch, scattered with all sort of candies; the accurate traditional costumed by Santuzza Calì; the apparition of the angels with the choreography by Anna Maria Bruzzese. Everything is lovely, even though this production could have dared a bit more in terms of inventiveness. For example, the descent of the 14 angels looked like a Christmas Catholic procession, with all those cumbersome fake wings and miming as if it was a Nativity scene. Moreover, the appearance of a rag-doll witch in the background reminded me of a puppet show for children (not bothersome in itself, but neither was it a particularly tempting idea). Exquisitely fascinating were the sequences in the woods, thanks to the lighting conceived by Andrea Anfossi, which suggested the sense of trepidation of the two lost children, surrounded by the whispering and mumbling of the forest.

This merry production was endorsed by a limpid and refined musical execution. Pinchas Steinberg conducted with care for the most intimate colours of the score: horns were mellow and beguiling, the percussion evocative. The cast was spot-on, ranging from the soft timbre and the high pitch notes of soprano Regula Mühlemann (Gretel), to the sonorous voice of Annalisa Stroppa (Hänsel), from the gross irony of Tommi Hakala (Peter, the father), to the austerity of Atala Schöck (Gertrud, the mother), from the intonation (perhaps a bit sugary, sometimes) of Bernadette Müller (in her double role of Sandmännchen and Taumännchen), to the glowing energy and accurate singing of mezzo Natasha Petrinsky (Knusperhexe, the hilarious witch who vaulted on her broom as a delirious mad, all covered in colourful rags). A special mention goes to the Coro di Voci Bianche of Teatro Regio. The highlights were the Interlude of Act II and the Introduction to the Act III, when the Orchestra of the Teatro Regio del Torino was transported from Steinberg’s baton into the lulling twists and turns of the score (which echoe Wagnerian harmonies). On the whole, it was an imposing bond of delicacy and freshness, worth seeing.