In the end, the dog got the biggest hand.

That moment during curtain calls neatly encapsulated the première of Jeníček a Mařenka, a Czech version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel at the State Opera in Prague. Teeming with fanciful creatures cavorting through phantasmagoric sets, the production is a visual feast that charms and entrances while neglecting the fundamentals of good opera.

© Hana Smejkalová
© Hana Smejkalová

Director Matěj Forman is well-known in the Czech lands for his captivating theater work. He and his twin brother Petr, sons of film director Miloš Forman, specialize in fantastic subject matter that they bring to life with a team of wildly creative costumers, set designers and choreographers. In 2012 they did Čarokraj (Enchantia) at the National Theater, a treatment of Gerald Durrell’s The Talking Parcel that opened with spooky mythological characters wandering through the audience. Their 2003 production of Philip Glass’s La Belle at la Bête featured a live horse onstage and a beast that got loose in the theater during the performance. 

Though considerably tamer, Jeníček a Mařenka is no less imaginative. The familiar Grimm Brothers fairy tale is transposed to a traveling circus, where the children’s ringmaster father revels in the life of a starving artist, and his beleaguered wife wonders where the next meal is coming from. The production opens with jugglers, acrobats and other circus performers settling in with a group of children for a puppet performance in one of the old-fashioned wooden trailers that doubles as a stage. Sniffing and licking his way through the crowd, an actor on all fours in a fuzzy costume gives a remarkably lifelike portrayal of a dog.

The puppet show turns out to be a preview of the Hansel and Gretel story, with the life-size puppet children coming off the stage at the end and being manipulated throughout the rest of the performance by their human counterparts. It’s a clever device that draws on the deep Czech tradition of puppetry, and threads a theme of artifice and metaphor throughout the opera. But it becomes awkward at times, stumbling over itself at moments like the concluding reunion of Hansel and Gretel with their parents, who seem not to know whom to hug – their actual children, or the puppets they’re holding.

Michaela Kapustová (Hansel) a Jana Sibera (Gretel) © Irena Vodáková
Michaela Kapustová (Hansel) a Jana Sibera (Gretel)
© Irena Vodáková

While much of the original libretto is rewritten to accommodate the circus theme, the first act ends in the same way – with Hansel and Gretel’s mother sending them off to find firewood. When their father returns with harrowing stories of children vanishing in the forest, the lights dim and ghostly apparitions flicker around the stage, just one of many effective uses of atmospheric projections.

The second act gives Forman and his team full rein for special effects. In front of a gnarled hill that looks like a giant ball of tangled roots, trees and clouds move, fog rolls in and half human-half horses wander through. After the children fall asleep, a leafy green fairy summons angels who appear more threatening than comforting, wearing impassive masks and waving four arms. Here the puppets work well, as the angels pick them up and carry them off to dreamland.

After a promising opening projection of a witch flying across the curtain, the third act is oddly muted. Instead of an elaborate gingerbread house, two gnarled huts roll onstage, one with candy hanging from it, the other eventually becoming a glowing oven. A flash of light freezes the ravenous children, who become as stiff and submissive as their puppet doubles. Hansel’s puppet provides an amusing moment when the witch bites its finger and declares, “Too bony!” But she gets no time or space to become threatening before being dispatched to clear the stage for a brisk production number and a happy reunion at the circus wagons.

As usual, the roles of Hansel and Gretel were sung by women – Michaela Kapustová and Jana Sibera, National Theater regulars who brought animated excitement to their performances. Making the most of their relatively brief appearances on opening night were Alžběta Poláčková (the fairy), Jana Sýkorová (the mother) and in particular Svatopluk Sem (the father), who showed the strongest voice of the evening.

Jaroslav Březina (Witch) © Irena Vodáková
Jaroslav Březina (Witch)
© Irena Vodáková

As happens occasionally, the witch (ježibaba) was cast as a man – Jaroslav Březina, another National Theater singer who managed a wicked gravely voice but was otherwise thoroughly unconvincing, lumbering about the stage like a bizarrely dressed tramp. Aside from some fiery lighting effects, there was not much climax to him being kicked into the stove. The ensuing release of gingerbread children and their transformation back to real people was more appealing, especially with a fine performance by the Kühn Children's Choir. 

The music was also disappointing. Under the baton of music director Martin Leginus, the State Opera Orchestra normally does a fine job, particularly with the Romantic repertoire. But in this case, Leginus’ reading of the score was more Wagnerian than whimsical, heavy and overbearing when it needed to be nimble and light-hearted. At times the sound of the orchestra drowned out the singers, an unforgivable faux pas, especially in such a straightforward, colorful piece. 

That may have been one reason the human characters never quite engaged the audience. The flood of special effects was even more overwhelming. Entertainingly unpredictable and smartly executed, they became the center of attention rather than a supporting supplement to the narrative. They also blurred the focus and darkened the tone of what is billed as a family production, which ends up being a bit too dark and complicated for children, but not sophisticated enough to be satisfying for adults. 

Still, the animals were sensational. And when the dog stayed in character throughout the curtain calls, he deserved the biggest applause.