The overture to Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is not only one of the most atmospheric openings of any Romantic opera, but also serves to remind the listener immediately of eternal topics, such as humanity, nature, loyalty and, of course, childhood. It does so with a characteristically German sound, presenting its first theme, that hauntingly beautiful and marvellously simple horn call, in the simplest of all keys, C major. This is one of several, easily identifiable Leitmotifs of this post-Wagnerian work, returning later many times and in different shapes; memorably, as the theme for the Abendsegen, the frightened siblings’ evening prayer in the dark forest, and triumphantly again in the finale. It testifies for Hans Sachs’ famous pronouncement, in the final minutes of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg: “Was deutsch und echt, wüßt' keiner mehr” (What is German and true, would no one know any more), albeit, naturally, in a different context.

This new production was premiered at the Erkel Theatre, the second theatre of the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest. It struggled to find meaningful answers to what the above topics should mean for our times and, more notably, how they should be presented to our – in my opinion – most important audience: children.

Director Rafael Villalobos, along with set designer Emanuele Sinisi, presented the opera in the run-down backyard of an industrial area. A yellow metal staircase leads to a mostly meaningless door high up on the left, while on stage, green garbage bins and discarded shopping trolleys serve as, well, garbage bins and shopping trolleys. “Work makes you noble!” claims startling graffiti above the staircase in Hungarian, and I won’t describe the circumstances where a very similar sentence – then in German – petrified millions of people in the 1940s. A huge grey garage door gives an ominous background to the first scenes, only to open up after the interval to reveal the Witch’s workshop, mostly sterile and white and spooky, with medical cabinets and an armchair with tie-down belts –  not unlike the images from the workshop of Dr Mengele. It thus appears that, in this directorial concept, children are not the target audience; but the reasons for that, or who the intended target audience is, remain unclear.

In front of such scenery, the staging of the overture was confusing. A syrupy Daddy-Mummy-love-their-playing-children pantomime was acted out, ineffectually and with exaggerated gestures in a double contradiction, for it did not fit the background and grossly violated the atmosphere of Humperdinck’s poignant music and splendid orchestration.

The first scene clashed with this idyllic introduction, for Hänsel (Gabriella Balga) and Gretel (Helga Nánási) are literally starving and their mother, Atala Schöck, claims: “I’m weary of life”. Her voice and that of the father, Zsolt Haja, came through reasonably well but what and how the siblings sang, was hard to discern. The Erkel Theatre underwent extensive renovations recently; sadly, its dry acoustics have changed little, lacking noticeable ambience or natural resonance. Although the orchestra in the open pit performed expertly under János Kovács, a conductor with enormous knowledge of operatic matters, even he could not keep a well-proportioned balance between stage and orchestra.

The youthful voices of both siblings will surely gain strength with time and experience. Right now, their Hungarian diction was often as hard to follow. In the second half, though, the sound improved distinctly. Was it me getting used to this odd balance?

The forest scene was made memorable in the wrong sense by the inclusion of six traffic lights on wheels, while the sleeping siblings were surrounded by members of the children's chorus wearing either gas masks or mouse costumes – I just could not decide. The vastly experienced mezzo-soprano, Bernadett Wiedemann, in the role of the Witch, dressed in a ghastly pink and black costume, kept singing about sweet desserts and lollies, yet the description above the garage door said: The Black Cat Sugar Free Chocolate Factory. I wondered if I perhaps missed the point of this irony. At the pinnacle of the opera, there was no smart trickery from Gretel, but the Witch leisurely walked through an open door, with the occasional pink light behind it – a distinctly anticlimactic scene.  

Humperdinck’s music is rich in melodies, emotional suggestions and atmospheres, in stark contrast with the clumsily performed dances, the lack of smiles on the saved children in the finale and the vague imagery of the production in general. If we want to attract new younger audiences, they will need clearer guidance to understand what is beautiful in this opera and why. Come to think of it, this is true for prospective grown-up audiences as well.