"Hansel and Gretel" cooks up a storm at Royal Opera

Wed Dec 10, 2008 11:55am EST
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The Royal Opera's new production of "Hansel and Gretel" is schmaltzy, sentimental, beautifully sung and played -- in short, everything it should be, until German soprano Anja Silja shows up as the witch.

Then Covent Garden really starts cooking.

The witch's role often is considered the best thing going in the 1893 opera based on the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale about the lady living in a gingerbread house in the forest who is outwitted by the brother and sister whom she intends to bake into cakes. Silja makes the most of it.

"She is a mass murderer," Silja, 68 and still going strong, told Reuters after the opening night on Tuesday, wasting little time in getting right to the heart of her character in this oddity that seems like an early take on "The Sound of Music" and "Sweeney Todd" rolled into one.

Composer Engelbert Humperdinck (yes, it was his name before the crooner), a slavish acolyte of Wagner, mixed together just the right ingredients of German folk tune, lush orchestration and ear-catching arias of his own invention and hung them onto a fairy tale that disturbs and fascinates in equal measure.

Due to the disturbing bits, the Royal Opera is asking parents not to bring children under eight. With ovens onstage in Act 2 that would comfortably fit just about everyone in the first 10 rows, parents would be well advised to take heed.

But for everyone else, this is bound to be a delight, and not just for Silja's witch, half yummy-mummy Nigella Lawson, stuffing almonds and raisins into Hansel to fatten him up, half Cruella de Vil baying at Gretel: "You're so sweet and perfect for a witch's mouth - Yes, Gretel soon will be a pot roast."

Did someone say only under eight?   Continued...