Innovative tricks in Opera North’s New, Musically Distinguished Hansel and Gretel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel: Soloists and Chorus of Opera North / Christophe Altstaedt, Grand Theatre, Leeds. 2.2.2017. (JL)

Fflur Wyn as Gretel and Katie Bray as Hansel (c) Robert Workman

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

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

Grimms’ fairy tales can be disturbingly dark in nature although when the brothers were writing up their version of a traditional story they often toned it down a little. In spite of that, their Hansel and Gretel was a pretty nasty affair. Humperdinck’s librettist for the opera was his sister and she toned it down further, most notably changing the wicked mother bent on murdering her children into a normal, exasperated but loving parent. This leaves the way open for a child-friendly interpretation that can even play it for laughs and such is Opera North’s.

The setting is a kitchen/diner that looks to be roughly 1950/60s and what is notable is that the scene never changes. Transportation to the forest and then to the Witches house is done through video projections onto the walls and ceiling of the room. What is innovative is the way this is done. In the opening scene the two children run about playing, taking turns in wielding a video camera that provides live back projections of parts of the kitchen, and themselves making silly faces into it. The movement is furious and after a while I was feeling quite dizzy. Come the forest scene, the children take us there by hauling miniature trees and bushes onto front stage and filming them onto the back walls.  When lost and frightened the kindly Sandman (Rachel J Mosley) appears and settles them down to sleep, promising happy dreams. This is taken by Edward Dick and his production team as licence, during the long and beautiful orchestral passage that follows, to project onto the walls scenes of  a family seaside holiday, children enjoying themselves with bucket and spade, fish and chips and generally going wild with excitement. You can see the point. However, the libretto asks for a ladder to come from the sky down which descend angels to guard the children and ensure the sort of sleep that “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care”. In chatting to a few people afterwards all were unanimous in thinking the sequence a mistake, the main reason being it simply did not fit the music. A small audience sample I know but I feel this will be a common reaction.

I suspect that audiences will be divided on the success of this production and there is no harm in that. Whatever the case, the whole enterprise is redeemed by the quality of the musical presentation combined with the consummate acting skills of the cast. The standard was set from the start by the orchestra. Humperdinck’s overture is a clever presentation of the opera’s main themes knitted together into a web of fine counterpoint and gorgeous orchestration. Conductor Christophe Altsteadt rendered it with loving care, perfect balance and pace, every strand of the texture clear and nuanced. And so it was throughout.  He held the large orchestra in check so that singers were always well heard and the English mostly intelligible.

Hansel and Gretel were a splendid double act, doing what children do: charging about, teasing and poking each other but at other times being mutually protective. It was a marvel how the singers handled the camera at the same time, let along sing. Flur Wynn as the girl is no stranger to woods dark and deep having sung the Woodbird in Wagner’s Siegfried for Opera North, a vocal performance much admired. Katie Bray as her brother was last seen at the company  as Rosina in Rossini’s Barber where she demonstrated a superb gift for comic timing that again stood her in good stead. Their beautifully sung duet before they go to sleep in the forest was a vocal high point.

Susan Bullock sings both their mother and the Witch. Although this was not Humperdinck’s original intention, it is common practice now days, offering the opportunity for Freudians to have a field day. As one of the world’s leading interpreters of opera’s most formidable soprano heavyweight characterisations such as Brünnhilde, Isolde and Elektra, there was no chance here to fire off her biggest vocal guns but in roles, neither of which are especially high for a soprano, she sang effortlessly, first as a stereotypical housewife and then as the Witch, sinisterly cast as a sunglassed, fur coated glamour puss. The latter was a brilliant comic turn, aided by David Pountney’s witty and often ironic translation.

Stephen Gadd as the Dad made a splendidly drunken entrance. He has both physical and vocal presence with a fine, clear baritone. As the Dew Fairy, Amy Freston did a wonderland turn with a carpet sweeper, dressed as one of those housewives in post war adverts that always look immaculate.

Admirably innovative though this production is, it will not suit everyone but it is unquestionably worth a visit to savour a musical rendering of distinction.

After Leeds the production tours to Newcastle, Salford, Belfast and Nottingham.

John Leeman

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