Ireland Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel: Soloists, Chorus and Ensemble of Irish National Opera / Richard Peirson (conductor), Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 15.2.2020. (RB)
Directors – Muireann Ahern & Louis Lovett
Set & Costume designer – Jamie Vartan
Lighting designer – Sarah Jane Shiels
Video designer – Jack Phelan
Hansel – Raphaela Mangan
Gretel – Amy Ní Fhearraigh
Mother – Miriam Murphy
Father – Ben McAteer
Witch – Carolyn Dobbin
Sandman/Dew Fairy – Emma Nash
The Night Watchman – Raymond Keane
Lost Children: Young Hansel – Ronan Millar, Young Gretel – Amelie Metcalfe
Irish National Opera have joined forces with the Abbey Theatre and Theatre Lovett to bring Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera winningly to life in this splendid new production. Hansel and Gretel was first performed in Weimar on 23 December 1893 under the baton of Richard Strauss. It was staged in Hamburg the following year this time with Gustav Mahler at the helm. It has remained one of the most popular works in the repertoire ever since: the Royal Opera House chose it for their first complete radio broadcast in 1923. This production was also a first for directors Muireann Ahern and Louis Lovett, who confessed in the programme notes that they had never directed a full-length opera before.
Ahern and Lovett have dispensed with Humperdinck’s medieval forest setting and replaced it with a hotel. We initially see the family and assorted guests gathering in the foyer of the Forest Edge Hotel. Hansel and Gretel find themselves lost in the haunted woods bar before they encounter the Witch at the wickedly rich kitchen. The hotel foyer was dark and shabby and an old style elevator with a cage dominated the set. This was subsequently transformed into the Witch’s oven in the third act. Flickering tacky neon signs gave the production a noir feel while highlighting where the action was taking place. A mobile kiosk straight from 1930s cinema was the hotel’s reception desk while a fridge in the wickedly rich kitchen became the witch’s gingerbread house. Jamie Vartan’s costumes seemed to come from the early part of the twentieth Century with plain greys representing the frugality of the times. The Witch was initially dressed in a stereotypical black hat and cape before changing into a chef’s outfit. The Abbey Theatre does not have a pit and is unable to accommodate a full-scale orchestra so a small band of instrumentalists sat at the side of the stage throughout.
Last year’s production of The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne set Mozart’s elaborate fairy tale in the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, so there are certainly precedents for a hotel setting. Ahern and Lovett’s setting was certainly inventive and Jamie Vartan’s gloomy sets and costumes conjured up the down at heel times and the darkness of the tale. The hotel setting also gave the story a modern twist. All too often we hear stories of homeless, out of work families being placed in squalid hotels or guest houses which are entirely inappropriate for children. However, I struggled with the idea of the children getting lost in the haunted woods bar or a wicked witch baking children in the hotel kitchen, so the concept did not entirely work for me.
The cast gave strong performances throughout. Amy Ní Fhearraigh captured brilliantly the carefree delight of Gretel in the first half with her childish dancing, and she showed considerable acting flair in the scene where she was immobilised by the witch’s spell. The vocal line was smooth and seamless and the songs beautifully characterised. Raphaela Mangan’s Hansel was a mix of boyish impetuousness and bravado and the vocal line was well handled. Carolyn Dobbin’s Witch was a camp, fun-loving character who gleefully splashed culinary ingredients around in her white chef’s outfit. Her performance of the Witch’s aria was superb and deservedly greeted with enthusiastic applause.
Ben McAteer and Miriam Murphy both gave accomplished performances as the Mother and Father. McAteer’s singing was strong and virile and he portrayed the protective Father well. Murphy’s comic timing was excellent and I enjoyed the scene where she showed up with a burger and chicken nuggets. However, her tone sounded a little forced at times particularly in the upper vocal register. Emma Nash’s Dew Fairy added to the enchantment of the evening by giving a luminous performance of her Act I aria, assisted by Raymond Keane’s silent Night Watchman who communicated using movement and mime.
Raymond Peirson conducted from the piano and he and his small band of instrumentalists did a terrific job conjuring up Humperdinck’s orchestral sonorities. The balance of sound was impeccable and they provided sterling support to the singers. They successfully produced an impressive range of orchestral textures and colours in the big set piece numbers such as the overture and the Witch’s ride. Having said that, it was not always possible them for them to reproduce the rich opulence of Humperdinck’s Wagnerian score but you really do need a full orchestra to do this.
Overall, this was a first rate and hugely enjoyable performance of one of the great staples of the repertoire.