Cher Public

Heaven must be missing 14 angels

The Hänsel und Gretel discussions over the holidays plunged me down a YouTube rabbit hole, and while I was grubbing around down there I saw an amount of directorial Fail at one particular point that was surprising in such a reliable old warhorse.  

The Dream Pantomime has got to be one of the best things in the score, with that gradual escalation from playfulness to a full-blown Wagnerian straining toward the tonic, only to overshoot it thrillingly at the climax. It’s big music, obviously, with intense emotional weight—sort of an upbeat Nice Twin to the Immolation Scene.

That size isn’t just overinflated rhetoric, either. This is the musical depiction of an answered prayer, and not just in the trivial sense: two abused, exhausted, terrified kids have just prayed for protection in a hostile world. And the music grants it to them, if only for a night, with a grandeur that matches the size of their fear.

But it seems not to have met with much luck in the staging–thus making it yet another example of the unending dilemma of opera direction: what do you do with a sentiment whose form is seriously outdated but whose content is still real?

Here’s a quick and dirty translation of the original stage directions:

They sink back onto the moss and fall asleep under the fir tree with their arms around each other. Complete darkness.

Suddenly a bright glow penetrates the fog; it soon gathers itself together like clouds and takes the shape of a staircase reaching down to the middle of the stage.

Fourteen angels, in bright, long, flowing garments, solemnly descend the staircase, spaced apart in pairs, as the light brightens. They take their place around the sleeping children in the sequence described in the “evening prayer”: the first pair at their heads, the second at their feet, the third right, the fourth left; then the fifth and sixth pairs take places between the other pairs, so that the circle of angels is completely closed.

Lastly, the seventh pair joins the circle and takes their place as “guardian angels” at both sides of the children. The other angels now extend their hands to each other and dance in a solemn round around the group. The entire scene is filled with intense light. While the angels arrange themselves in a picturesque tableau, the curtain closes slowly.

It’s hard to see how the “composer’s intent” is going to come off as anything but a groaner of a Sunday School pageant nowadays. Yet if it wasn’t already clear from the music itself, we now know for sure that two things are built in. You’ve got to produce magic, which is damn hard. And, just in case those multiple trombones weren’t hint enough, there’s power involved. The kids are surrounded by a circle of Beings of Light. (Yeah, see? We’re already in trouble here.) And I don’t know why the stage directions don’t mention it, but the scherzando strings toward the start can’t help but throw a certain element of play into the equation.

No question it’s a tough directing assignment. Completely aside from the inevitable practical and budgetary constraints, there’s the problem that film has seriously upped the ante for breathtaking visual spectacle. Plus a lot of audience members are unlikely to find simple piety an accessible source of sincere feeling. Not to mention that opera directors these days often seem to mistrust representations of emotional comfort as somehow facile. There also seems to be a tendency in some quarters to disdain the kind of Busby Berkeley dazzle that Hollywood continues to apply for fun, profit, and critical acclaim.

Anyhow, here’s an assortment of what various productions have tried. No attempt to be exhaustive here, just stuff I found prowling around.

The most literalist version I could find on YouTube is the old one from the Met, 1982:

But in spite of the airborne angels, which are pretty cool even today, this keels over into kitsch. Most importantly because these are just Christmas tree angels, no more effective protection than a tin badge is against a bullet. These are supposed to be guardian angels. Not just cute cherubs, but representatives of the sublime, “sublime” meaning the beautiful mixed with fear. Rilke says “every angel is terrifying,” and the music agrees. It may start out cute, but by the end we’re talking hard-ass sword-bearing Old-Testament angels weighty enough to ward off whatever horrors the woods can provoke in an infant mind. (Those trombones mean business!) Instead, the Met provided pretty blonde ballet dancers waving their arms gracefully in dresses that were too big for them.

The situation is even more dire in the Solti movie of 1981 (not helped at all by the lugubrious tempo):

Right off the bat, the last thing I want to see at this point is an exhibition of the local Wankenheim Art Club’s landscape paintings. The angels, when they finally arrive, are sort of impressive and much like what the original directions call for in terms of being made of light. But the details pretty much puncture any sense of gravitas and wonder–or one thing, bad fabric choice: those “flowing garments” have a slightly sleazy resemblance to negligées. “Walkin’ Round in Women’s Underwear,” anybody? (And the cutting to cute, wide-eyed kids only makes me feel even less thrilled. Sorry, Everding, wonder isn’t something you can arouse at second hand. In fact second-hand wonder is practically a definition of kitsch.)

The Italian team that produced the RAI TV version back in 1957 tried to get around the problem by staging the scene with some bewigged, bewinged kids frolicking around in nighties:

It’s cute and kinda sweet–I like how the wings periodically go askew–and of course it gets the initial playfulness, but it’s unable to rise emotionally to what the music ultimately becomes. (Fer Pete’s sake, the whole troop of “guardian angels” goes to sleep on the job. Fire those kids!)

A sampling of more recent productions suggests that today’s directors are inclined to finesse the issue by reworking the whole concept of angels, as in the oddly charming (but to my mind still off-target) surrealistic ballet from Dresden in 2006:

Maurice Sendak would seem a natural for this, but there’s nothing helpful on YouTube about his 1997 version. According to Wikipedia he “deliberately strips away all the spectacular fantasy elements in the ‘Children’s Prayer’ scene,” but according to Sendak himself that’s not actually what he was after: “I saw [the angels] on stage and took them off as fast as I could. Now the angels are wood nymphs, dryads, spiritual creatures from another world, which I think you could define angels as being. I like to think they’re children who suffered and died young and now live in the forest helping other abused, starving children.”

That sounds promising, but apparently the execution was less so, if we can believe Tommasini: It became a “dreamlike episode in which other downcast and silent children appear. Hansel and Gretel rise from their sleep and watch, like worried parents. And there is much to worry about, for one little girl dies in the arms of an angel.”

I suppose if you’re Japanese the whole cultural phenomenon of angels must be irredeemably alien. Maybe that’s why this 2005 production took Christmas as its theme, with the pantomime staged as a dream about a Christmas tree, a giant teddy bear, and a family reunion:

I don’t know if any native Japanese cultural analog could be found to parallel Humperdinck’s German angels (Croche might be able to tell us), but in any case this version seems beside the point to me.

Of course for smaller houses, budget plays an especially baneful role–presumably one reason why other productions go even farther afield, with jugglers, etc. So far as I can judge from this excerpt, one of the most off-the-wall solutions was the Minnesota Opera’s tap dancing fantasia of 2014:

The Leiser/Caurier ROH version from 2008 takes a different oneiric-surreal tack: enormous squirrels(?) in angelic hazmat suits construct a fireside where slightly creepy versions of the kids’ parents offer elaborately wrapped presents that contain–a sandwich? (Kirchschlager and Damrau play it beautifully, though.)

At least this approach manages to focus on a real need. Besides being afraid, these kids are hungry. That’s the whole reason they get in trouble in the first place, duh. But as on-target it is intellectually, it’s emotionally not really there. It’s like an opera singer trying to do jazz without really understanding it – it has the notes but not the tune.

(It sounds as though Pelly’s rather nifty-looking Glyndebourne production from 2008 takes this hunger idea a long step further by adding a nasty twist of class conflict at this point, but I couldn’t find anything but glimpses. I’ve already ordered the DVD.)

Following a similar hunger-based logic, the Met’s current production at least summons up a grandeur similar to the music:

It’s playful, grand, kind of thrilling and kind of scary, so it does a lot of what it’s supposed to. It’s the best match I’ve seen so far, and maybe it’s the best we can do these days. But it still leaves me with a nagging sense of doubt: if your present basic state is fear, that isn’t such a great stimulant for the appetite. (Let’s set eating disorders aside for now, OK?) At its deepest level, this music is really about relieving fear. So this staging still doesn’t convey quite the same degree of comfort as the music aims for.

Obviously it’s not entirely fair to look at these scenes in isolation from the whole production. But I do think it’s fair to ask how successfully they harmonize with what the music is doing at this particular point. If it’s fair to ask whether a soprano hits all the notes in a scene, then it’s fair to ask the same thing of a director. And most of them, well, don’t.

It also ties in with something that’s been troubling me for a while now, especially since seeing Neuenfels’ relentlessly defeatist Fidelio. It seems to me that in an era of Daesh and climate catastrophe, Fidelio’s message of hope and perseverance is needed more than ever. Yet Neuenfels seemed to dismiss them as illusory. Here in H&G too, a number of the directors seem to be wary of any but the most materialistic possibilities for comfort and inspiration. Is the best our culture can offer to counter the devastating certainty of the bigots and terrorists–a sandwich?

So the question becomes, how could you stage this section in a modern opera house in a way that gives it its full, honest emotional weight?

It’s a shame Sendak’s designs didn’t get more effective direction; it seems like a protective ring of his scary-friendly critters might have been ideal.

I also wonder whether it would be possible to set the opera in grinding modern urban poverty, more or less à la ROH and Glyndebourne (less so the Met), but send the kids out to dumpster-dive and get them lost in a semi-deserted warehouse district. As they sleep, some street people–who know from hunger themselves–gather and fend off some of the real monsters who prey on those who are so vulnerable. (Hell, while we’re at it, why not let them transform into super-heroes?) In any case, for a short time a few outcasts of society show themselves to be Guardian Angels in a real sense.

Any other suggestions?