Fine Singing and a Staging that Could Hardly be Bettered at the RNCM

19/03/2018

Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Northern College of Music / Anthony Kraus (conductor). RNCM Opera Theatre. 17.3.2018. (RJF)

Kimberley Raw (Witch) in Hansel and Gretel (c) Robert Workman

Cast:

Hansel – Rebecca Barry
Gretel – Fiona Finsbury
Peter (Father) – Matthew Nuttall
Witch – Kimberley Raw
Gertrude (Mother) – Eliza Boom
Dew Fairy – Stephanie Poropat
Sandman – Rhiain Taylor

Production:

Director – Stephen Medcalf
Set and costume designer – Yannis Thavoris.
Lighting designer – Jason Taylor
Chorus master – Kevin Thraves
Choreographer – Bethan Rhys Wiliam

Given the RNCM’s advertised concentration on a ‘French Connections’ of activities during this academic term, that saw the December opera being Cendrillon by Massanet (review) and a recent joint concert with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. That concert played music predominantly by composers from France and giving performances also in London and Paris after its premiere in Manchester, with the latter being streamed. I was therefore somewhat surprised by the choice of an opera by a profoundly Germanic composer being selected for the second major opera offering of the academic year. Not merely German, Humperdinck was considered an acolyte of Wagner being an assistant to him in the preparation of Parsifal for the stage in 1882. The work is written very much in the Wagnerian idiom despite being based on a fairy tale. It was premiered at Weimar in 1893 and where Richard Strauss conducted the premiere; unlike Humperdinck’s other stage works it was considered a success. However, I discovered what might be the reason for the choice; the production is shared with Grange Park Opera in Hampshire who last year moved nearer London to a new purpose-built opera theatre at West Horsley Place, much nearer London than its previous home.

The combine with Grange Park Opera also brought international names to the creative team. I have always admired the production standards presented by the RNCM since the days of Freddy Cox whose standards were of the highest, particularly in maintaining veracity with the composer’s intentions. In recent years productions of significant quality and veracity have been in the hands in the hands, until his retirement, of Stefan Janski a senior member of staff. It was good to see him present at the premiere of this latest work directed on this occasion by the widely respected and travelled Stephen Medcalf who, like Janski, always shows respect for a composer’s intentions and also enjoyed an academic background. Suffice it to say that he didn’t update the story or surround it with a gimmick staging and behavior. The story unfolded with respect to the composer’s intentions whilst also allowing the student singers to show the exuberance of youth, and the youthful inexperience that the music and the plot allows. Equally important was the setting. The RNCM workshops have always produced stage sets of quality. I do not know if some loosening of financial constraints were a product of the shared production, but the sets were outstanding in their aptness, variety and overall quality. The sweet shop was quite spectacular in its presentation and usability. Likewise. the tricycle delivering milk reminded me of long lost days of that modus operandi for tradesmen.

The cast included three singers who had appeared in the final of the Elizabeth Harwood Award earlier in the week. A fourth member of the six appearing in that prestigious competition, and the winner, appears as Gretel in what is titled the ‘Alternative Cast’ not ‘Second Cast’ as in previous productions and will be reviewed by my colleague. Of the three finalists mentioned, Rebecca Barry as Hansel, Matthew Nuttall as the father and mezzo Rhiain Taylor as sandman all acted their parts well, with the last being particularly smooth in vocal enunciation and tone. Perhaps Matthew overplayed the drunkenness of the father, but his tone was strong and even, whilst Rebecca was outstanding as an actress as Hansel and in her reactions with her sister, sung and acted by Fiona Finsbury with equal felicity. Quality acting and vocal interpretation was evident from Kimberley Raw as the Witch. The quality of her acted interpretation was hardly surprising, as she had sung the role in a concert performance not long ago. She brought significant acted vibrancy to the role but must beware of over egging the cake, or ginger bread man! Last, but not least, was Eliza Boom as Mother, who like her colleagues could not be faulted as an actor and also brought smooth vocalization to her interpretation. All these students have doubtless benefited from the stage experience they get, not merely in fully staged productions such as being reported here, but from the regular ‘Opera Scenes’ they play, and which are open, free, to members of the public.

On the musical side the orchestra sounded a little slow at times under Anthony Kraus’ baton, whilst presenting the performance in English, without the benefit of titles, did not help audience or singers, particularly the former with a mainly female cast. The soprano vocal register is always at a disadvantage in getting the words clear let alone when the words are different than those seen by the composer during composition of the work!

Robert J Farr

For more about event at the RNCM click here.

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