Arts Arts & Books

An opera for all the family

Apart from lending his name to a tight-trousered pop star of the 1960s, the composer Engelbert Humperdink (German, 1854-1921) has one enduring claim to fame: his opera Hansel und Gretel, whose application of easy if Wagnerian lyricism to a classic fairytale makes it a family favourite around Christmastide. And the new production at London’s Covent Garden (pictured) is purpose-built to be a Christmas perennial.

Directed and designed by Antony McDonald, it’s a picture-pretty show whose simple innocence will disappoint anyone looking for the darkness in its Brothers Grimm story of abandoned children being baked alive by a culinary witch. The witch here could be Mary Berry, she so lacks demonic qualities. And apart from the fact that her gingerbread house looks like Bates Motel (it certainly doesn’t look edible), what you see is pure Walt Disney – with a touch of Sondheim’s Into the Woods as the story opens out, fairy tales collide, and Cinderella, Snow White and Red Riding Hood turn up with silent, walk-on parts.

It’s undemandingly naïve and decorative. But having sat through more than enough Hansel und Gretels that played like a Newsnight investigation into child abuse, I can only say that this one comes as a relief. And it being Christmas, I happily surrendered to its charm – as I did to the bright, vivacious singing of Hanna Hipp and (Covent Garden’s latest find) Jennifer Davis in the title roles.

Making his debut in the Royal Opera House pit, Sebastian Weigle conducted in a way that lightened the Wagnerian ballast in the score but left you knowing that there’s more to Humperdink than jolly tunes and German kitsch. The music had the necessary glow of substance. And it all worked nicely.

***

Less substantial, and considerably less agreeable, was the lead attraction at this year’s Spitalfields Festival. A year ago Spitalfields triumphed with the kind of unclassifiable experience festivals exist for: an “immersive” venture that sent audiences from door to door around the Georgian houses in the neighbourhood, collecting intimate performances of songs that built into a Schumann cycle. It won awards and was a hard act to follow. Too hard as things turned out.

This year’s “immersive” venture had audiences roaming around a semi-derelict warehouse – now used as a disco club – in darkest Hackney. Called Unknown, Remembered, it involved the game soprano Katherine Manley singing a dramatic cantata by Handel alongside lyrics by the band Joy Division, video installations of exquisite dullness, and the partial re-enactment of a Samuel Beckett text. The meaning of it all escaped me: it felt random, vacuous, unfocused. But perhaps that was the point. In which case it succeeded handsomely.