The Junges Ensemble of the Theater an der Wien under the musical direction of Vincenz Praxmarer pulled off a very creative reading – both scenically and musically – of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy tale opera Hänsel und Gretel for their final production of the season at the Kammeroper.

Viktorija Bakan (Gretel) and Jake Arditti (Hänsel) © Herwig Prammer
Viktorija Bakan (Gretel) and Jake Arditti (Hänsel)
© Herwig Prammer

In lieu of sweeping, Wagnerian lines and string-heavy instrumentation of Humperdinck’s opera, composer Helga Pogatschar created a completely different world of sound for a 2006 production in Munich which the Kammeroper opted to utilize here using the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Instead of merely scaling back the scoring, which cannot help but seem like a pale shadow of the rich, well-known original, Pogatschar produced a folk-music inspired setting which included elements like recorder, celeste, dulcimer, piano, clarinet, guitar, piano and even harmonium. Giving the work a folk-music bent served a number of purposes. For one, it allows the small ensemble to speak through the orchestral texture with ease, and is also sound-appropriate for the small stage and space that is the aptly-named Kammeroper. Moreover, though my soul occasionally longed for a more sustained instrument to take up the melody lines, particularly in the overture (my kingdom for a violin!), the focus on plucking and strumming drew our focus to Humperdinck’s tight polyphony and highlighted a number of contrapuntal voices that normally gets lost beneath all-encompassing string and horn lines.

Jake Arditti (Hänsel), Viktorija Bakan (Gretel), Julian Henao Gonzalez, Johannes Kemetter © Herwig Prammer
Jake Arditti (Hänsel), Viktorija Bakan (Gretel), Julian Henao Gonzalez, Johannes Kemetter
© Herwig Prammer

All the folksiness of the instrumentation lay in stark contrast to the very urban reading of Christiane Lutz's production. Instead of the standard, poor woodsman and an evil stepmother next to a massive wood, this production featured a 1950s era family struggling to make it by selling vacuum cleaners. Peter, sung by excellent baritone Tobias Greenhalgh, is also a would-be bank-robber, and Gertrud, dynamically realised by mezzo Natalia Kawalek, a blonde housewife having an affair with the local policeman. The children, personified by the radiant soprano Viktorija Bakan and countertenor Jake Arditti shop for Haribo candies instead of gathering berries in the woods and make a mess at home instead of breaking a jug. The sandman, tenor Julian Henao Gonzalez, is Peter’s partner in crime, who along with their third party, Johannes Kemetter, chloroform the children upon being accidentally discovered in the midst of their illicit tunnelling to the bank, and the Dew Fairy a disembodied radio voice which wake their children from their slumber. One of the comedic highlights occurs when Gretel sings “Ein Männlein steht im Walde” to a traffic light.

Jake Arditti (Hänsel), Thomas David Birch (Witch) and Viktorija Bakan (Gretel) © Herwig Prammer
Jake Arditti (Hänsel), Thomas David Birch (Witch) and Viktorija Bakan (Gretel)
© Herwig Prammer

There were a number of moments, however, where the creative, generally entertaining plot lost me a bit. In the third act, Hansel and Gretel, having followed their father’s tunnel to a clothing boutique, wake up singing about the nature surrounding them, then find their way into a stark prison ward where they sing of nibbling on sweets and cookies, represented here by cash they find in the jail’s post-boxes. The witch, portrayed by tenor Thomas David Birch, turns out to be the corrupt policemen cuckolding Peter. He shocks the kids with a stun gun, then locks up Hansel and forces Gretel to help him counterfeit gold bars. As much as I love a well thought-through departure from the storyline, it was hard to sit through an entire act featuring singing about fattening up and eating children in a magical gingerbread house while seeing nothing being cooked but possibly the books. At some point, one does start to wonder if the children need their eyes checked. Good (or here: bad but not evil) triumphs. The kids turn the tables on the policemen and are rediscovered by their tunnelling parents, who make off with the take, hopefully having had the foresight to have pre-booked tickets under assumed names to a country from which they cannot be extradited by the government.

Despite the inherent incongruences, the Kammeroper and Theater an der Wien have produced a fun romp through a family holiday classic featuring a young, dynamic cast, and an original world full of strange new sights and sounds… and also vacuum cleaners!