Opera review: Hänsel und Gretel, Cape Town Opera, Artscape Opera House, April 3, 6, 8, 10, 2021  

What: Hänsel und Gretel – the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck When: April 3, 6, 8, 10, 2021 – on stage Where: Artscape Opera House Bookings: Computicket https://tickets.computicket.com/event/hansel_und_gretel/7167107 Company: Cape Town Opera – Ané Pretorius as Hänsel, Brittany Smith as Gretel, Janelle Visagie and Martin Mkhize as the children’s parents and Bongiwe Nakani as the Knusperhexe (witch) Director: Alessandro Talevi Orchestra: Cape Town Philharmonic Conductor: Kazem Abdullah Design: Set and costume design by Roger Ballen and Marguerite Rossouw Lighting design: Kobus Rossouw Language: Sung in German with surtitles in isiXhosa and English  

Bravo to Cape Town Opera, director Alessandro Talevi (South African born, based in Turin, Italy), conductor Kazem Abdullah (American, currently living in Nuremberg) and the creative team Roger Ballen, Marguerite Rossouw and Kobus Rossouw for its astounding staging of Hänsel und Gretel. This is an opera experience extraordinaire, Easter 2021, lockdown, pandemic Cape Town. It is an achievement to perform anything live during Covid. Staging opera with a company of singers, orchestra and sets requires focus, sheer determination and vision. Cape Town Opera’s Hänsel und Gretel is visionary in concept and staging. Hänsel und Gretel is an experience which is emotional, visually arresting; uncomfortable; disruptive at times, and exhilaratingly beautiful with a finale which lifts us and gives us hope that everything will be okay; that we will find our way out of the darkness of our times.

Hänsel und Gretel -the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck -based on the Grimms Brothers’- fairy tale was first staged in Weimar on December 23, 1893. The libretto was written by his sister Adelheid Wette. The opera taps into the Grimm’s apocryphal story of evil being vanquished as the children Hansel and Gretel outwit the witch in her fairy tale confectionery house.  If we have faith in a higher being; if we believe, we will triumph. That premise holds in this production: All ends well. The children are re-united with their parents. We need that release and the relief however, the journey is anything but sweet. There is no sugar coating in this production. The premise of children being sent into the forest is not nice – no matter how bad the parents’ lives may be and how poor the circumstances that they find themselves in. The reality is cold and terrifying as the children venture into the forest of the unknown. The horrors are unvarnished. Roger Ballen’s gingerbread house is not cute and yummy. It hasn’t been stylised with valences. It is a house of death; a tomb with zombie like masked figures. It is a nightmare- emotionally and physically. The libretto with its late 19th century flourishes and flashes of mirth [“I want to eat you all up”, quips the witch] are juxtaposed against the visual wasteland that Ballen conjures up – junkyard – ossuary- crypt in the forest. Visually, it pings for me in terms of Surrealism. Limp arms clutching lollipops remind me of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1490 -1510), or Dali and his clocks in The Persistence of Memory (1931). I think of Paul Klee faces; Picasso, Munch faces in howls of screaming, frozen in fear.

Ané Pretorius as Hänsel and Brittany Smith as Gretel imbue a playfulness – a release – to ease the tension – but they too are ciphers in this ghost scape. Both artists are not only in fine voice but as they have showed in the past, they are accomplished actors and in this production, they tease out the complexities of their characters- lost, scared but never mawkish – even in the final scenes when they ditch the witch- Knusperhexe in German. Google informs me that Hexe has its etymological roots as Hexe- witch and sorceress and knupser is crispy; something to nibble or crunch away. Bongiwe Nakani as the Knusperhexe is sassy and enchanting as she wants to gobble up the children – but not in a good way. In the dark of the forest, there is seduction. The Knusperhexe is the witch as diva who is luring innocents into her lair.  Ballen’s design and Rossouw’s costumes heighten the allure within the horror. The vulnerable are easy targets and that resonates for me now, during the pandemic, when we hear of shocking stories; of people being tricked because they have no hope and will follow a trail, even if it seems improbable. The director reflects in the programme: “Hansel and Gretel are indeed the lucky ones; they escape with their innocence intact and find their parents again. But what of the others? Where do these poor children go, with no father or mother? This is the question that I hope to leave audiences with as the curtain falls.” That comes across profoundly and on a broader level in terms of the vulnerable in our society, particularly during this time.

In the pit, is the Cape Town Philharmonic, conducted by Kazem Abdullah. There he is in his mask, using his whole body to conduct the musicians who are also masked, except for the wind players. There are perspex partitions section them off. We are sitting, mask on, watching. The Chorus is strategically positioned, but let me not give that away.   For me, attending this opera, I felt like it was a site responsive piece of theatre. We are sitting in this surreal time, on the edge of our seats, hanging onto the libretto, tapping along to the folksy music. As Kazem Abdullah notes in the programme, Humperdinck worked closely with Richard Wagner and we see the Wagnerian influence in the music. We the audience are part of the site of this ruptured landscape of Covid and we are watching this nightmare unfold but as I said at the end, all ends well and we have been through a much needed catharsis during Covid, live on stage at the opera with the glorious voices of Cape Town Opera.

*Note, the season was sold out (with lockdown allocation of 100 seats per performance) but with the recent easing of lockdown regulations, 250 seats are now available per performance. Impeccable Covid safety protocols at the opera – from sanitising of pens used to sign in; no gathering in foyers; masked marshals enforcing that masks are worn at all times; no interval – one comfort break to go the restroom; no refreshments sold. See TheCapeRobyn Instagram story 2021 Lockdown folder, for footage of Artscape foyers- stripped of seating- freaky – a place of gathering- empty.

Hänsel und Gretel – the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck, presented by Cape Town Opera in the Artscape Opera House, April 2021. Set by Roger Ballen and costumes by Marguerite Rossouw. Director: Alessandro Talevi. Supplied.
Ovation for Cape Town Opera’s Hänsel und Gretel, in the Artscape Opera House. This photo taken on April 3, 2021- with permission of the opera. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen. Note: Roger Ballen’s evocation of the gingerbread house which is a staple of the fairy tale. In this staging, it is a house of unvarnished horrors which is juxtaposed against the libretto which conjures sweeties and delicious treats. Note: The masked musicians in the pit – The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra – and the perspex dividers – separating the players. This production was meant to be staged in 2020 but was postponed because of Covid and lockdown restrictions. It was originally intended to be staged in the Theatre at Artscape but was moved into the Opera House as it has a larger pit for the orchestra.