San Francisco Opera’s Christmas offering, Englebert Humperdinck’s 1893 Hansel and Gretel, ain’t no traditional fairy tale. This co-production with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden plays up serious social themes illuminated by Herr Humperdinck in a libretto by Adelheid Wette, the composer’s sister. It loosely follows the breadcrumb-dropping plot of the Grimm brothers’ familiar children’s story. But, many elements are changed. No stepmother; breadcrumb trails abandoned; gone, the fattening cage with sticking out chicken bones instead of fingers; all dumped.
The opera is all the better for that, providing meat for adults and Christmas candy for children. The world economy, and Germany’s with it, had slumped in 1873. Twenty per cent of German companies had gone bust and recovery did not come until well into the 1890s. It was for a bleak world of widespread hardship and frequent domestic shortages that Herr Humperdinck’s sparkling jewel of an opera was cut.
From the get-go the hardship theme is to the fore. Antony McDonald, the British opera and set designer, greets the audience with a transparent curtain depicting a sylvan German valley, but the idyll is unsettled by a slightly rickety wooden house. During the overture subtly illuminated images of life within the house at mealtimes flash from a time of plenty – kitchen table groaning with goodies, father carving a fat chicken – to destitution and starvation.