A successfully innovative approach to Hansel und Gretel by British Youth Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel): Soloists, Southbank Sinfonia / Stephen Higgins (musical director). Holland Park Theatre, London, 12.8.2021. (MB)

Eva Gheorghiu and Rosalind Dobson in BYO’s Hansel and Gretel (c) Tristram Kenton

Director – Daisy Evans
Arrangements, Sound design – Max Pappenheim
Set and Costume designs – Loren Elstein
Lighting – Jake Wiltshire

Mother – Hilary Cronin
Father – Jack Lee
Gretel – Ellie Neate
Hansel – Amy Holyland
Dew Fairy – Rosalind Dobson
Sandman – Eva Gheorgiu
Witch – Fiona Finsbury

Not at all what I was expecting — and in many ways all the more moving for it. British Youth Opera, hosted by Opera Holland Park, presents a Hänsel und Gretel for our times. This was not, I hasten to add, a Hänsel replete with masks, ventilators, Microsoft Teams, and so on. I think we all fear these will be theatrical clichés soon to descend and slow to depart. Rather, preparation for performance, adjustments made, and what we see and hear on stage and through headphones resonate strongly with recent and current experience in and out of the theatre.

The work is reworked, as it were, so as not only to offer a lightly metatheatrical treatment, but also to enable ways of hearing especially, necessarily prevalent over the past eighteen months to shape, perhaps even to invade, our theatrical space. We begin in medias res, rather than with the Overture. Rehearsal for a traditional staging is under way, directed by an actor-ly woman who, suggestively, later plays the Witch. (Her chance at last to shine, or something more sinister?) Two children, Hannah and Gemma, commence a disruption of proceedings that offers both opportunity — the path to their surprise assumption of the central roles — but also apparent danger, let out into the world without their telephones, their parents both concerned and distracted. Daisy Evans, artistic director of Silent Opera, brings her experience to bear in having much of the earlier action play out on two aural levels: we set our headphones according to whether we wish to listen to the children’s or the adults’ perspective. In practice, we probably flit between the two — as with our eyes too, sometimes in harmony, sometimes not. It initially seemed surprising that this experiment did not continue, but coming together after estrangements of various kinds is surely the point here.

Likewise the counterpoint, for want of a better word, between a small live instrumental ensemble and a fuller recorded orchestra transformed in various unexpected ways by Max Pappenheim. Such tension and overlap tend, like a new English version of the libretto — perhaps it would be better to say of the story itself — both to enhance and estrange, like much recent experience. We make our way through, together, then, like Hansel and Gretel — or Hannah and Gemma. Resourceful use is made of the stage, of earlier designs, of found objects, of electronic means, but above all of theatre itself. When it all comes together, we rediscover with true joy what we have been missing — yet perhaps also recognise ruefully what continues to be absent.

Ellie Neate (Gretel) and Amy Holyland (Hansel) (c) Tristram Kenton

Amy Holyland and Ellie Neate made for a colourful central pair, charting vocally and scenically the theatrical transformation, far from linear, of Hannah and Gemma into Hansel and Gretel. Hilary Cronin and Jack Lee, taking on a larger slice of the action than would generally be the case, shone similarly as their parents in accomplished musical and dramatic performance. One often had only to tilt one’s head to witness another, unsuspected layer to the action. Fiona Finsbury clearly had an excellent time in her roles, as did the rest of a cast which worked very well together. Coordination of scenic and musical elements by Daisy Evans and Stephen Higgins not only worked well, but combined to provide in itself heightened emotional response at what remains a time of deeply heightened emotions.

Mark Berry

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