Review: Hansel and Gretel

This review is also published (with some pictures) at Opera Britannia

Hansel & Gretel – Engelbert Humperdinck
Rating: ★★★½☆
Theatre Royal, Glasgow – 4 February 2012, Scottish Opera

Just a dozen or so years before Engelbert Humperdinck wrote his most famous opera, the world was tasting saccharine for the first time. The great danger with Hansel and Gretel is that it will taste much the same. Bill Bankes-Jones’s production of Hansel and Gretel for Scottish Opera managed to find enough that is dark and sinister to ensure that we were not overwhelmed by sweetness but still managed to produce an evening where the sheer beauty of the music leads the production from beginning to end.

Things began promisingly. The overture was played in its entirety with the curtain down and no business going on on-stage. There was no scene setting. No drama. Nothing at all. Well, nothing except the house lights being dimmed but not extinguished, whilst a blue curtain glimmered in front of us. The effect was simple but glorious and took us straight into dreamtime.
When the curtain did eventually rise, we found Hansel and Gretel at home in a rather strange log cabin with great soaring pillars made from planks of wood rising far out of sight.

Kai Rüütel and Ailish Tynan made a fine pair as the title characters. They worked very well as brother and sister, sharing one another’s strengths (and also, curiously, having similar weaknesses). Ultimately their parts are essentially all about duet work and it was possible to feel an immediate bond between their voices. Each had a warm resonance that was perfect for the exquisite beauty of the score. However, together with Shuna Scott Sendall’s Gertrude they each struggled a little in the diction department and occasionally one was thankful for the surtitles, even though the piece was being sung in English. Ms Rüütel and Ms Tynan’s larked about the stage for a bit and seemed every bit the naughty children they were supposed to be.

Note to all theatre directors – knitting on stage can’t be faked. Either one can or one can’t. If one can, one can spot a mile off one who can’t.

It was not until Paul Carey Jones appeared as the children’s drunken father that anyone really owned the stage. His voice was full of personality – lively, sparky and filling the theatre with no-nonsense power. He was a joy to listen to and his appearance seemed to give the whole production a confidence that one had suspected might otherwise be lacking.
Down in the pit, the orchestra seemed to be enjoying Emmanuel Joel-Hornak’s conducting. There was certainly none of the petulance and tuning problems that were on show just a couple of week’s ago at Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery. Somehow Joel-Hornak managed to produce one sublime moment after another. One might question the wisdom of some of the dynamic markings. The singers would have stood a better chance had things been kept down a notch, particularly during the first two acts. Notwithstanding this, the overall impression was of resplendent elegance and I’ve not enjoyed hearing Scottish Opera’s orchestra as much for quite a while.

Once Hansel and Gretel had been packed off to the wood, the truly sinister aspects of the production started to become evident. The tall soaring columns that had formed the basis of their cabin in the woods now of course became soaring tree trunks. The were vast, rock-solid structures soaring high out of sight beyond the proscenium arch. All the more shocking then when they began, oh so very slightly, to move. Gradually one realised that all the trees were moving. That this began almost imperceptively made it all the more effective. At first one wanted to nudge one’s companion and ask whether they’d seen the tree move too. Soon it became apparent that not only were the trees moving but they were hemming in the children. Altogether creepy, one was left feeling a shiver running up and down one’s expectations.

Soon the Sandman (Miranda Sinani) had appeared and was encouraging the children to sleep and their big number, the Evening Prayer was soon upon us. The siblings did us proud, their voices shimmering heavenwards and being rewarded eventually by a bunch of fourteen rather striking angels who came to watch over them whilst they slept.

After the interval, Marie Claire Breen’s Dewman was waking up the bairns with a sprinkling of glitter and an impressive clear voice that one would swap one’s alarm clock for any day. Ms Breen and Ms Sinani made one wish afresh that Humperdinck had given these characters more to do. The first appears and puts the children to sleep and the second appears and wakes them up and that’s your lot.

Soon we were off to the gingerbread house and meeting the Witch, Leah-Marian Jones for the first time. Here again, the director managed to bring out the darkness of the piece by presenting us with a sugar-coated villain. Ms Jones looked for all the world like a cross between the Sugar Plum Fairy and Miss Truly Scrumptious. It was not hard to see why children would have been attracted to her and when her wicked ways became evident it was all the more shocking.
Ms Jones made the most of all that was asked of her. Her voice was full of surprising spells and wonderful charms. She was a big character and her evil was all too believable. When finally dispatched into the gingerbread oven, her then amplified voice rocked the theatre with its chilling death screams.

All ends well, of course. All ends very sweetly. Indeed, sweets litter the stage. All ends so sweetly in fact that we have to have a chorus of children saved from the witch’s clutches. One can’t help thinking that the Pied Piper is the better story.
Still, the children on the stage were obviously enjoying themselves and their contribution ended what had been a lovely evening. The music is delicious from beginning to end; the best of the singing luscious and the set striking and very clever.
This is so obviously an enjoyable show that it is surprising that Scottish Opera are only performing it on seven dates and these divided between Glasgow and Edinburgh only.

Aberdeen and Inverness must go hungry.

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