Alstaedt and Opera North Render an Unrecognizable Hansel and Gretel

13/03/2017

Opera North – Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel (sung in English): Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Christophe Alstaedt (conductor), The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays, 8.3.2017. (RJF)

Hansel&G (C) Robert Workman

Opera North’s Hansel and Gretel (c) Robert Workman

Cast:

Hansel – Katie Bray
Gretel – Fflur Wyn
Gertrud and Witch – Susan Bullock
Peter – Stephen Gadd
Sandman – Rachel J Mosley
Dew Fairy – Amy Freston

Production:

Director – Edward Dick
Set Designer – Giles Cadle
Costume Designer – Christina Cunningham
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Video Designer – Ian William Galloway
Choreographer – Gary Clarke

When I received the information regarding Opera North’s winter season 2017, I was intrigued to see the operas being presented were under the themed title Magic and Mischief: A winter season of Deliciously Dark Fairy Tales. A season with a theme has become the hallmark of Welsh National Opera’s season’s since David Pountney took over as supremo down in Cardiff. Maybe, I wondered if, like the recent Kiss Me Kate (see review 1 and review 2) and the more distant productions, much revived in each case, of The Elixir of Love and The Barber of Seville, it heralded further shared productions between the two senior UK regional opera companies. After all, the financial pips are squeaking in both companies following major cuts in the Arts Council grants and it makes financial sense if artistic aims are in tune. After I discovered that Pountney was responsible for the translation of this production I shall wait and see with even more interest.

Economics have certainly played a part in the season with the same basic set adaptable for all three Fairy Tale operas. This also allows flexibility in programming to the extent that two operas, Hansel and Gretel and Cenerentola, are presented as matinee and evening on the Saturday of the season at The Lowry and other venues. It also has the advantage that those wishing to see the works at this venue do not have to wrestle with the journey twice along the M60 motorway, surely the longest running conversion to Smart Motorway in Europe, something like four years for eighteen miles!

Having made the horrific journey I was to be amazed by the production, the likes I have not met in over sixty years of opera going. The basic set in looks like the living room cum kitchen of a 1960s council house albeit the fridge is of a later date. There is a table, chairs, an upright empty fridge devoid of food in Act I and over filled later and a cooker cum oven. The unusual, even idiosyncratic aspect was the use of live cinematic filming of the play between the two children. The transformation to the forest of Act II is again achieved via use of lighting and cinematography. The children are settled to sleep by the Sandman and their dreams are of projected seaside views of them playing along the beach during the long orchestral interlude which seemed idiosyncratic at best. Conductor Christophe Alstaedt paced the music rather slowly much as he had the extended overture of the opera.

The whole of the production was most unusual, not even defined by Regietheater or concept or the adoption of updated clothing. Certainly it had a mixed response from a good sized audience, some of whom absented themselves at the interval during which there were some confused discussions among them. Thankfully the singing and acting of the cast was up to standard with Katie Bray’s Hansel being particularly notable, her build being helpfully lean for needing some fattening up by the witch whose forced feeding technique was one of the more amusing touches. Katie Bray seen recently in The Barber of Seville for Opera North (review) joined in the children’s play with vigour whilst Susan Bullock, something of a veteran Wagnerian, had a few touches of raw tone doubling up as Mother and Witch. Despite her excellent acted portrayal of the witch I don’t think her costume would have given these two children, with their high tech gizmos, many worries. They might have zapped her rather than pushed into the oven. Stephen Gadd was a nondescript father and somewhat lost in the production.

Robert J Farr

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