July 10, 2008

A Grimm Tale That’s Not Just for Children




Productions of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hnsel und Gretel are like London buses: you vainly wait decades for one, then along come two at the same time, courtesy of Covent Garden in the autumn and Glyndebourne next week. This adaptation of a Grimm story may be part of the standard repertoire in German houses, but here it's consigned to that critical limbo: "for children". "But as with all good fairy stories," says Glyndebourne's general director David Pickard, "you don't have to go far beneath the surface to realise that it's a pretty dark affair."

What is now forgotten is that, after its premiere in 1890, conducted by Richard Strauss, it became a worldwide hit. Within a year, over 50 German theatres had staged it, and within 20 years it had been translated into 20 languages.

Pickard describes it as "a gorgeous late-Romantic piece, with exquisitely Wagnerian music but at a fraction of the length". He won't be drawn on how Laurent Pelly's production will work, except to say that he's come up with "a typically thoughtful concept, with some interesting messages delivered with his usual lightness of touch, and his fantastic visual imagination".

The cast - led by Jennifer Holloway and Adriana Kucherova as the babes lost in the wood - is strong, and, with the charismatic Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Witch, should have a prize grotesque. On the podium will be the Japanese conductor whose publicity-shyness have prevented him becoming the household name he deserves to be: Kazushi Ono.

Ono's take on the reasons for the story's popularity are interesting. "It touches," he says, "on the fundamental fear of hunger. A fear we in the West - and in Japan - simply don't know these days. But I noticed when we did a workshop on it with children in Brussels, and got them to write poems and draw pictures about it, it was the children from poor districts who were much more engaged, and whose images of plenty were the most beautiful."

20 July to 29 August (www.glyndebourne.com)

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