Hänsel und Gretel - Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Humperdinck originally conceived Hänsel und Gretel as a play, to be performed by his nephews and nieces as a birthday present for their father. He wrote some simple songs and was sufficiently excited by the results that he turned the play into a ‘fairy-tale opera’, one that continues to delight children. Yet there are undertones that few contemporary productions ignore.
Laurent Pelly’s staging is no exception, but in the view of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, who takes the role of the Witch (which he first sang at Glyndebourne in 2008), those undertones are not exaggerated: "What I love about this production is that Laurent doesn’t overplay the paedophilia and cannibalism that we’ve seen in productions over the last 20 years, although they are there. More significant is that he’s created a contemporary equivalent to the Gingerbread House: a supermarket stuffed with every imaginable kind of sweet. The Witch owns the place, and is in effect advertising her wonderful products to the children. She wants to fatten them up so that she in turn can eat them. What is going on here is a critique of our consumerist society, in which being poor often means having to live on junk food as the cheapest way of feeding your family."
Humperdinck might have been surprised at such an interpretation; he would surely have been shocked by Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s incarnation of the Witch. Today it is not unusual for the role to be taken by a man, but Ablinger-Sperrhacke has made it his own, and has strong views about how to play it: "The Witch is an archetypal figure, he/she/it is not bound by gender but is beyond that. You don’t necessarily have to play the character as a psychological study: who cares whether the Witch had a difficult childhood? She can be grotesque, wild, funny and nevertheless evil to the core. To play the role as a caricature would be to duplicate the effect, so I sing it straight."
Any such role presents difficulties, but in this case the problems begin even before Ablinger- Sperrhacke reaches the stage: "Putting on the makeup takes an hour-and-a-half, and then you need another 30 minutes to get into the costume, which weighs around 10 kilos: it’s hard work being a witch. The wonderful thing about being a character-tenor is that you have such a wide variety of roles, from Mozart to Wagner and on to contemporary music. I see all of them as individuals, and try to take a new approach towards every single one of them. Even the drag roles should be different from one another: at Glyndebourne I’ve also sung the nurse Arnalta in Monteverdi’s Poppea, and that’s quite another thing: she’s a real person, you have to play her in a more psychological way. Drag roles are not my Fach, they’re just one of my specialities, but there is one other such part that I’d love to do: the title role in Rameau’s Platée."
That sounds like an invitation to opera houses everywhere. In the meantime, we can sit back and enjoy Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s fruity incarnation of Humperdinck’s ill-fated Witch.
Words: Nick Kimberley