Anyone attending Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel at the Juilliard School and expecting a cheery holiday treat must have received a rude jolt. Both designer Maurice Sendak and director Frank Corsaro have collaborated before on operas with storybook themes – notably Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen and Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are at the City Opera – and the results were funny-scary in ways guaranteed both to enchant the small fry and to give their parents some unsettling reminders of what being a child really means. This time though, the sights and sounds were rather more grim than Grimm.
Yes, Hänsel und Gretel suggests plenty of horrors – murder, child abuse, cannibalism, vandalism – but bring them too far to the surface and we’re apt to lose sympathy with the whole milieu. As in many productions nowadays, the wicked witch and the children’s mother are shown to be the same woman, although depicting mother Gertrud as a flask-swigging alcoholic whose relationship with her broom is suspiciously sexual seems a bit much. There are many other inventions, but few comment effectively on the piece and others are just puzzling: two omnipresent cats, enigmatic forest creatures, children everywhere (do Peter and Gertrud run a woodland orphanage?). Sendak’s bold cutout flats and animated animal drawings are, as always, rich with delightful eye-filling details – perhaps too many this time, since they threaten to overwhelm the opera.
Possibly a stronger cast would show the production off to better advantage. Since Mariana I. Karpatova as Gertrud-Witch was ailing at the first performance, that key character registered wanly, but her colleagues also lacked distinction, and the orchestra played weakly for Randall Behr. A sore disappointment on the whole, and one that left many of us longing more than ever for a City Opera revival of The Cunning Little Vixen, a truly magical Sendak-Corsaro creation.