Reviewed: Hansel and Gretel
I say opera, you say… fat ladies? Waltzing? Endless high-pitched wailing in Italian? A quick poll of my not so musically minded friends suggested that the above are all common conceptions of this centuries- old art form. However, DOE (Durham Opera Ensemble)’s charming production of Hansel and Gretel delightfully disproved such misconceptions.
Written in 1893 by German composer Englebert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the contemporary side-burned crooner of the same name), the opera charts the story of Hansel and Gretel, two errant children who, during the course of a rather eventful evening, are hypnotised by a sandman, visited by a dew fairy in an enchanted forest and subsequently kidnapped by a gingerbread-house inhabiting wicked witch who attempts to bake them (thankfully unsuccessfully) into a pie. Safe to say, there was not a fat lady or a molto bueno in sight.
The orchestra was formed from members of DUOS, Durham’s outstanding student orchestra. They were conducted by seasoned Musical Director Calum Zuckert, whose head could be seen bobbing away in the pit in a most delightful manner throughout the performance. DUOS never fail to impress, and from the first strains of the overture I knew I was in for a treat.
As the opera opens the audience finds itself in the austere surroundings of Hansel and Gretel’s house (which large quantities of leiderhosen and talk of strudel would suggest is to be found in an undisclosed location somewhere in Germany). Home alone, Hansel and Gretel are bored, hungry and singing about the gourmet feast they wish they could eat. Hansel, played by second year DOE stalwart Polly Leech, owned the staged from the minute the curtain came up, giving a consistently polished and animated performance throughout. To convincingly portray a pre-adolescent boy would be a challenge for any adult actress, even more so while beautifully singing mezzo-soprano, as Polly does here. Polly fully inhabited the role of mischievous Hansel, employing wonderfully comic facial expressions and distinctly masculine mannerisms. Her voice is one of the best I think I have ever heard in the Assembly rooms, and something tells me this won’t be the last time she treads its boards. Fresher Elen Lloyd Roberts gave a pitch-perfect moving performance as Gretel, but I would have liked to see her engage a little more with the piece. Daniel Tate and Camilla Harris were note-perfect as Hansel and Gretel’s drunken father and down-trodden mother.
Personally, I found that the first act lacked a little momentum, although I should state that this is more due to Humperdinck’s writing than any error on the part of this excellent cast and production team. Few characters feature in these first scenes, which are dominated by two rather long duets, and the whole act just never quite got going. Some sound issues also meant that the orchestra over-powered the singers at points – as it often does due to the tricky acoustics of the Assembly Rooms, resulting in the loss of a sizeable portion of the lyric.
Momentum gathered as the second act began, transporting us to an enchanted forest and setting the scene for the magical frolics to begin. A minimalist set design was successfully employed here by director India Furse, with sheaths of trembling, earthy-coloured fabric standing in for trees and the use of candles and dry ice to create a fantasy ambiance. At this point the delightful chorus made their entrance, as a band of lost children, successfully lifting the piece with some lovely harmonies.
Fleeting, but equally lovely, performances were given by Charlotte La-Thorpe and Emma Parkhouse as the Dew Fairy and Sandman respectively.
The whole thing took a rather wonderful turn for the absurd in Act 3 with the entrance of Fleur Moore-Bridger as the witch. Gone was the traditional wart-riddled nose and pointy black hat, replaced instead with an enormous back-combed bouffant, copious amounts of eye-shadow and more than a touch of insanity. If you are at all acquainted with the Grimms Brothers’ original tale you will know that the witch lures the children to her gingerbread house with promise of the culinary feast they were dreaming about in Act 1, only to fatten them up and baste them ready for roasting. This was wonderfully staged by Furse, in a scene reminiscent of a rather profane version of Ready, Steady Cook.
The demand for a happy ending traditionally enforced by the Fairy Tale genre was pleasingly satisfied, with the children triumphing over the witch by locking her in the oven, in the process fortuitously releasing a band of children who had been imprisoned there by the witch. Cue some singing, some dancing, and lots of living happily ever after.
This was a charming production- it had some truly exceptional singing, beautiful accompaniment by the divine DUOS, and skilled direction from India Furse, all wrapped up in a glossy coating of magic and enchantment. All in all, the perfect antidote to those mid-term blues.