The average age of the audience at the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Hänsel und Gretel on November 25th was unusually low, thanks to the many small children in attendance. Parents seem to be under the impression that Humperdinck’s opera is suitable for children. I doubt that any version of this disturbing piece is actually child-friendly, but Richard Jones’ staging seems particularly calculated to inspire nightmares. Great singing and acting, visually striking sets and unsettling contrasts characterize this terrifying production.

Tara Erraught (Hänsel) and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Gretel) © Wilfried Hösl
Tara Erraught (Hänsel) and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Gretel)
© Wilfried Hösl

It all starts innocently enough: Tara Erraught’s Hänsel and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller’s Gretel are perfect as hungry, petulant children. They seem believably young (even in the final act, when they are inevitably compared with the onstage children’s chorus) and possess apparently boundless energy, singing while dancing, fighting and scrambling over furniture. They both have strong, clear voices, which they use to good effect, choosing clear emphases and prioritizing drama over vocal beauty. That’s not to say that their lyrical moments aren’t beautiful: the quiet blending of their voices in the prayer at the end of Act II stunned the whole auditorium into silence. 

Hänsel and Gretel’s parents are also charming. As their mother, Michaela Martens shows off a rich mezzo voice that can be both intimidating and endearingly enthusiastic. Her husband (Sebastian Holecek) at first seems like an annoying drunkard but later reveals his mischievous tenderness when he announces the surprise he’s brought home: food! Holecek’s powerful voice and sheer dramatic energy enliven the stage from the moment he appears.

But when Hänsel and Gretel go to the woods to gather berries, things get strange. These woods are a dining room, with suited tree-men standing against the walls. The nervous Hänsel must search their pockets for the berries he seeks. As it grows dark, the Sandman – an eerily skeletal puppet, with the beautiful voice of soprano Rachael Wilson – emerges. The children pray to angels for protection and fall asleep. Instead of the usual angel tableau, a fish-headed maître d' emerges from a trapdoor and directs dough-faced waiters to present a banquet.

The staging goes from strange to horrifying when Hänsel and Gretel step through a giant mouth into the witch’s lair. Realistic children’s corpses are scattered about the room and stuffed into the cupboards. Dismembered limbs sit in meat bags in the fridge and are gleefully tossed to Gretel by the Witch. As the Witch, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is a brilliant character tenor, whose acting ability shines during his long aria. But his physical presence isn’t matched by his underpowered voice, which fails to overwhelm as the Witch’s should. His dull black costume also fails to contribute to the impression of a zany, evil old woman. That said, his smiles as he prepares to cook the children and his facial expressions as he gets baked in the oven are truly spine-tingling. He gets his just desserts in the end, when the revived children feast on his baked corpse. The children’s chorus only appears briefly, but sings sweetly and stands impressively still before the spell is lifted. The children also brandish their forks and knives in the finale with an unsettling amount of enthusiasm; they are clearly eager to take to cannibalism.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Gretel) and Tara Erraught (Hänsel) © Wilfried Hösl
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Gretel) and Tara Erraught (Hänsel)
© Wilfried Hösl

Maestro Tomáš  Hanus draws a wide range of dynamics and tempi from the Bayerische Staatsorchester. The overture is particularly compelling, with sudden transitions and lots of textural variety between its many contrasting sections. The overall pacing of the opera keeps the story moving briskly, while still allowing moments of intense lyricism.

Overall, this creepy production is a definite musical and dramatic success. Attend, and bring your friends – but for goodness’ sake, don’t bring young children!