Night has fallen. Lost in the forest, the famished boy and girl have said their bedtime prayer, then drifted off to sleep. A guardian angel appears, then another and another. Part squirrels, part astronauts, with snowy wings that light up in the dark, they arrange a homey tableau. A fireplace rolls in, cheerfully ablaze, a miniature Christmas tree on the mantlepiece. Two wing chairs materialize, and in them, mother and father. The parents' faces are loving and gentle, and each of them holds a gift box fit for any prince or princess. Dazed, the children untie the ribbons, extract sheet after sheet of tissue, and discover their treasure: half a sandwich for the boy, half a sandwich for the girl, egg-salad on white bread, cut in triangles. Slowly, solemnly, they eat.
The Act I finale of Hänsel und Gretel seldom fails to cast its spell, but the layered fantasy of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's new staging at Covent Garden last December lent it a transcendent dignity that took one's breath away. In sharpest contrast, yet equally effective, was the Act II nightmare in the Witch's kitchen, where frozen children hung suspended in a giant meat locker. Christian Fenouillat's set designs, mid-twentieth-century in feeling, were rooted in downscale realism but bore blooms of untamed invention, as did Agostino Cavalca's costumes. (Christophe Forey's lighting served the visuals to perfection.)
Many in recent years have made a show of exploring this opera's dark side, but sooner or later, most sell out to slapstick. That did not happen here. In Anja Silja, the great Wagnerian of yesteryear, the Witch was the ash-blond ogress next door: a matron gone mad, brows drawn on in red crayon, blood clotting her hair, stone bosoms jutting out of her baby-blue cardigan. Her voice sliced like a rusty knife. The English titles made her even scarier, if that was possible, rendering ambiguous German turns of phrase in terms that were brutally explicit.
Faithfully documented here on Blu-ray (and also available on DVD), the Leiser–Caurier Hänsel und Gretel looks like an instant classic. True, the orchestra seems noncommittal in the prelude. But with the rise of the curtain, Colin Davis brings the players to life, infusing the action by turns with undiluted zest, menace, grace and mystery. Angelika Kirchschlager's Hänsel and Diana Damrau's Gretel chalk up top marks on every count; the poised serenity of their prayer is all the more moving for the subliminal anxiety with which they begin. Even their goofy dancing is a delight. Elizabeth Connell, a former Isolde, sings Gertrud in pealing tones; her figure is not that of a woman whose cupboard is bare. Thomas Allen, at best an occasional Wagnerian, is her match by force of voice and personality. There is no missing the animal magnetism between them, though there is evidence that he beats her, too. Pumeza Matshikiza is a Sandman straight out of Pan's Labyrinth. In a dizzy twist, the Dew Fairy — clearly identified in the score as the Taumann, or Dew Man, and described by himself as small of stature — takes the form of a towering pink-haired carnival queen in mock Dior, rubber gloves and diamond bracelets, brandishing like magic wands a feather duster and a can of air spray. The role is still sung by a soprano, and Anita Watson pulls it off with humor and discretion.