United Kingdom Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Northern College of Music / Anthony Kraus (conductor). RNCM Opera Theatre, Manchester. 19.3.2018. (MC)
Hansel – Charlotte Badham
Gretel – Daniella Sicari
Peter (Father) – Lachlann Lawton
Witch – Iain Henderson
Gertrude (Mother) – Charlotte Richardson
Dew fairy – Olivia Carrell
Sandman – Stephanie Maitland
Production: Stage Director – Stephen Medcalf
Set and costume designer – Yannis Thavoris.
Lighting designer – Jason Taylor
Chorus master – Kevin Thraves
Choreographer – Bethan Rhys Wiliam
Directed by Stephen Medcalf this well-ordered yet vibrantly charming RNCM production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel was produced in collaboration with Grange Park Opera using David Pountney’s excellent English translation. The performance that I attended was given by the second of the two casts.
Humperdinck, Wagner’s former musical assistant, shot to overnight fame in 1893 with this Märchenoper (Fairy Tale Opera) Hansel and Gretel. Loosely based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the opera has maintained an enduring popularity and as this RNCM production demonstrates still enchants audiences today. Hansel and Gretel is a work which I am convinced many sidestep, considering it just a children’s opera and one to be performed at Christmas time, common views in many countries outside the Austro/German regions. A couple of years ago I watched the Digital Concert Hall with Sir Mark Elder conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker at Philharmonie, Berlin in a concert performance of Hansel and Gretel given in December 2006. Sir Mark had interspersed several children in with the orchestra, at one point handing the baton to one young child. Whilst not especially enjoying the concept of interfering with the business of the orchestra, the concert performance was enormously engaging. At the Berlin concert presenter Klaus Wallendorf summed up the appeal of Hansel and Gretel by welcoming ‘children and former children.’
Compared to other performances I have seen it felt as if stage director Stephen Medcalf had toned down the sense of evil and fright from both the characters and stage props concentrating on the heart-warming qualities of the libretto, nevertheless it was no worse for that. Often, this performance of Hansel and Gretel reminded me of Carol Reed’s 1968 film Oliver! and the street urchins played by Jack Wild and Mark Lester.
Set and costume designer Yannis Thavoris excelled, creating a delightful, ingeniously designed set and conspicuous costumes which felt ideal for the production. As the curtain opened the sight was the inside of a drab one roomed house where Hansel and Gretel live with their parents, comprising of cooking range, bed and table from around the time of the late 1800s, the time the opera was written. Instead of the traditional dark, haunted forest scene we were given a city or large town with rows of gas lights in the streets illuminated by fourteen men holding long narrow rods. The customary gingerbread house designed to lure children inside was replaced by a wooden shop selling confectionery and pastries ran by the Gingerbread Witch. In the final act remarkably effective was how the children’s house increased dramatically to a giant scale. Complete with striking flame effects the Witch was pushed into the huge oven.
As Hansel and Gretel, Charlotte Badham and Daniella Sicari made a fortuitous combination. Badham was convincing in the trouser-role of Hansel, applying exaggerated boyish mannerisms to her acting and her clear, well controlled mezzo-soprano voice satisfactorily conveyed the vocal character of the youth as naturally as she was able. A few days ago, soprano Daniella Sicari was awarded the prestigious Elizabeth Harwood Prize at the RNCM and as Gretel she sung with an innate charm supplying a suitably innocent manner to the part of the adolescent. In most attractive voice that projected so well Sicari’s arias were affectionately delivered with smoothness and clarity, and excellent high notes. A highlight, albeit a rather predicable one, was the gorgeously scored ‘Evening Prayer’ for the title characters which sounded heavenly.
Baritone Lachlann Lawton took the role of Peter the children’s father singing with an appealing tone but could have emphasised the comedy drunkenness more. Mother Gertrud, played by soprano Charlotte Richardson notable for her clear and expressive voice went about her role in a rather unassuming way. Stealing the show was Iain Henderson as the Gingerbread Witch entertainingly sung and played and dressed in the manner of a Pantomime Dame together with a memorable comedy laugh and partial to a swig or three of liquor. It didn’t seem to matter that I could never imagine this Gingerbread Witch eating children. Doing all that was asked of them in their trouser-roles Stephanie Maitland the Sandman blew smoke into the children’s eyes through a long pipe and Olivia Carrell the Dew Fairy was really a milkman from Dew Farms.
The influences of Wagner, mainly Die Meistersinger, were evident wafting through the music and conductor Anthony Kraus was in command of every orchestral detail of this lavish score. Kraus was mindful of not playing too loud and swamping the singers, admirable with the demanding ritenutos and transitions. Glowing with expression the RNCM orchestra played beautifully, savouring every note and only rarely did some isolated unsteadiness show. Praise is also due to the chorus who were clearly well prepared under Kevin Thraves. My only grumble of the evening was the decision not to use surtitles as it’s not always easy to follow the dialogue even when sung in English.
Congratulations to the creative team and RNCM students for a treasurable production of Hansel and Gretel royally maintaining the opera’s tradition of enchanting the audience.
For Robert Farr’s review of the alternate cast click here.