By taking Hansel and Gretel more into the tone and territory of Into the Woods this production by director James Hurley both sheds light on an old favourite and brings us much closer than usual to the hard edges the composer intended us to glimpse beneath the heaps of confectionery. Give yourself a real treat and catch this deeply rewarding show on tour!
Pop-Up Opera have made it their mission to combine the highest musical values with a choice of unexpected locations that create an effective and valuable synergy with the works performed. They have succeeded spectacularly here with the most economical of means: there could be no better fit between Humperdinck’s opera and the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.
This is an opera that should not have extra sugar added. Basically it is quite a dark story, full of forest fears rather than Forest Murmurs, despite the Wagnerian harmonic palette. Yes, there is a gingerbread house and a happy ending of family reconciliation, but before that come family quarrels born of dire rural poverty, sibling rivalry, and a forest escapade that nearly ends in a Hitchcockian barbecue. In fact it is something of a mystery why this opera is always a Christmas favourite: you have to think that families slumped in front of it on the television are already as blissed out on a marzipan sugar hit as Hansel when fattened up for the witch’s oven.
It is hugely refreshing to have everything stripped back to basics – mops and buckets assuming many guises, an ingenious flat-pack house and some gloriously tasteless signage for the glitzy, kitchy delights of the witch’s lair. The magic was left instead to the composer’s deftly ingenious and variedly imagined music and the tenebrous setting of this graceful, lofty, prefabricated shed with a fine natural acoustic that has hosted many a wonder since it first began life in South Kensington as the first home of the V&A. This gave great scope for noises off, characters approaching from afar, and gloomy vistas that stimulated the imagination.
If there is wonder here it is rightly to be found not in fake charm but in the miraculous way this piece captures the thrill and fear of transition from childhood into teenage self-consciousness. There is a fine photographic exhibition in the foyer of children transitioning from primary to secondary school, where text and image capture brilliantly the mix of eager anticipation and shy anxiety of that stage in life. When done affectionately yet rigorously, as it is here, the opera pins down precisely the same changes and challenges.
It is why the most miraculous moments, those moments when every adult and every child in the audience are on the same page again, come when the spookily gothic evocations of unknown readily imagined terrors are first soothed by the arrival of the Sandman and then banished by the fervent assertions of the Evening Prayer that summon the protection of the fourteen angels.
By trusting the music and sensitivity of the acting brio of the players, Pop-Up Opera strip away the layers of varnish and show us how the composer fulfilled his mentor, Wagner’s, injunction to take the full sensual resources of his style and redeploy it in a folk opera.
Before we get to the excellent performers, two other contributions need to be highlighted. Berrak Dyer usually has to make do with a portable keyboard to carry the accompaniment, so it was a real delight to hear what a fine range of colours and textures and tones she teased out of a decent grand piano, when given the chance. There are long transitions and interludes in this piece that need to be calculated precisely in tempo and texture if the whole is to cohere; and this was done admirably, with no loss of weight and force in the more elaborate concerted sections in the final act.
The effect of the whole was, as usual, greatly assisted by Harry Percival’s witty captions. Neither quite full surtitles, nor mere summaries, they consistently hit the right tone – arch and knowing at times (‘Hocus Pocus, Fake News, Brexitus’) and wryly wise at others (‘Always do what your mother tells you in case you end up in an oven thanks to a woman looking remarkably like your mother.’)
At the heart of any successful production there must be a harmonious pairing between the two leads, both vocally and in acting style. This is superbly achieved by Polly Leech and Sofia Larsson, who have great chemistry with each other, and a fine command of stage movement that does not impede vocal acrobatics and a sensuous blending of tone in the long duet stretches that anticipate Richard Strauss in their velvety richness and complexity. Leech is very plausible as a swaggering and then crumpled boy, and Larsson generates just the right gawky awkwardness and crafty self-preservation needed to make Gretel believable. All credit therefore to movement director, Caitlin Fretwell Welsh, as well.
Ailsa Mainwaring has a lot to do as both the mother and the witch. She conveys a slatternly petulance and worn-down hopelessness as the mother, and a contrasting gleeful cunning as the witch that are most persuasive. In particular, it is a relief to have the latter role actually sung properly rather than caricatured in a drag performance; and it is no mean task to sing it so well in the midst of so much complicated stage business.
James Harrison has a rich range of tones in his baritone, and in a role that is often taken by an older singer, it was very refreshing to have some of the bolder affirmations projected so strongly: in fact he made you think that this opera was anticipating Wozzeck at points! Completing the company, Rebecca Moon delivered the Sandman and Dew Fairy straightforwardly as they should be, full of empathy and generosity of spirit. Less is more, because the more is already in the music.
German diction was clear and well projected by all concerned, and the costumes appropriate to each character within the limited budget. Shifting in short order from venue to venue with little rehearsal time carries a risk of accidents, but from a front-row seat your reviewer can testify that everything worked out safely within a precise range of inches! Even the jug of milk shattered just where it should do, though the stage manager responsible for picking up the contents later deserves a medal.
By taking this opera more into the tone and territory of ‘Into the Woods’, this production by director James Hurley both sheds light on an old favourite and brings us much closer than usual to the hard edges the composer intended us to glimpse beneath the heaps of confectionery. Give yourself a real treat and catch this deeply rewarding show on tour!