United Kingdom Humperdinck, Hänsel und Gretel – Opera in three acts: Soloists, Garsington Opera Orchestra / John Andrews (conductor) , Garsington Opera Young Artists Programme at West Green House, 26.7.2014 (CR)
Sung in German with English surtitles
Hänsel, Anna Harvey
Gretel, Alice Rose Privett
Mother, Kirstin Sharpin
Father, Jan Capiński
Witch, Helen Anne Gregory
Dew Fairy & Sandman, Joanna Songi
Old Palace School and Trinity Boys Choir
Director, Olivia Fuchs
Designer, Niki Turner
Movement, Jami Reid-Quarrell
Lighting, Richard Howell
On account of both its luscious score and the constant references to sweet confections, Hänsel und Gretel is so indelibly linked with Christmas that a midsummer production in a country house garden seemed a somewhat incongruous experience. Inevitably the light of the summer evening surrounding and entering the auditorium detracted from the dramatic effect of the forest setting in Acts Two and Three, and the ghoulish figures populating the scene as Hänsel and Gretel pick berries for their supper did not seem quite as sinister as a result.
Nevertheless, it was impossible to resist the work’s charm, particularly in the orchestral reduction by Tony Burke, requiring only sixteen instrumentalists to perform it in this case. Hardly ever did this sound deficient, but John Andrew’s conducting ensured a sufficient body of sound and frequently brought out the teeming richness of the score, quite often redolent of Wagner or Richard Strauss (who was surely inspired by Humperdinck’s work as he conducted its premiere in 1893, at which point he had barely yet embarked on his operatic career). Very occasionally the performance also revealed some rigorous thematic development in the score which would hardly have been out of place in a Brahms symphony. More importantly, altogether the instrumentalists sounded cohesive.
This was not entirely mirrored on stage, however. For much of the drama the handful of figures who eventually took the parts of the Angels loitered around the set, like spare stage hands, with little that was meaningful to add to the narrative. Somehow the effect was more like a school production, in which the director feels the urge to keep as many of the participants as busy as possible. This was partially understandable given that this was a presentation of Hänsel und Gretel given under the auspices of Garsington Opera as part of its Young Artists Programme, whose purpose is the promotion of young talent. But there need not have been any worries if it was thought necessary to supplement the performances of the main singers, as their stage presence and singing were all commanding.
Likewise, on the whole, was the rest of the production, which was first seen as part of Garsington’s main opera festival, last year. Admittedly it scarcely bears comparison with Glyndebourne’s colourful realisation of recent years where the Witch’s realm is reinterpreted as a vast supermarket of sugary goods. But Garsington’s production was not intended to indulge extravagant visual display for its own sake. At one level it similarly emphasised that the drama is a contrived piece of literary entertainment, having its origin as a fairy tale collected by the Grimm brothers: the production reminded us of this by setting the action upon a large open book, whose pages are turned between scenes. From these pages Father and Mother’s cottage and the Witch’s gingerbread house popped up at the relevant moments, as in a children’s book. But at another level, a more serious point was perhaps made by the fact that, accepting the terms of the drama’s artifices, those two houses were rather similar in dimension and structure, if not of material, such that the distance between reality and wishful fantasy on Hänsel and Gretel’s part was not very great. It seemed to be from their initial failure to grasp the difference and their willingness to be led by curiosity and appetite that they brushed with danger in the form of the Witch.
If anything, the acting and singing of Anna Harvey and Alice Rose Privett as Hänsel and Gretel was quite mature in character, which is to say that their undoubted technical accomplishment generally was almost at odds with the jejune nature of these roles. But to their credit, their night-time prayer in the forest at the end of Act Two sounded particularly innocent, especially with the chamber-like backing of the orchestral accompaniment.
Together Kirstin Sharpin and Jan Capiński made a good pair as Mother and Father, setting off the comparative naivety of their two children, though Sharpin could have brought out more of the Mother’s weariness. Joanna Songi sang sweetly as the Sandman and Dew Fairy, whilst Helen Anne Gregory caught the charisma and sinister nature of the Witch, though this was not of the same camp and ambiguous variety as when the role is taken by a man.
As such, this production tended to underplay the opera’s comic elements – however dark they may be – even as it emphasised its artificial aspects as a setting of a fairy tale, with moral lessons to be drawn. But within that, it gave perfect scope for the singers to develop their musical and dramatic abilities to considerable extent, and without doubt we shall be witnessing some memorable performances from them in future years as this early promise comes to full fruition.