Hansel and Gretel, Opera North | reviews, news & interviews
Hansel and Gretel, Opera North
Hansel and Gretel, Opera North
Uneven update redeemed by superb singing
Opera North’s updated version of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel takes place in what looks like a down-at-heel Leeds housing estate, the titular siblings shown filming the story using simple domestic props and back projections. Quite how the impoverished pair have acquired a high-end video camera isn’t made clear; presumably the assorted boxes of Christmas decorations scattered around Giles Cadel’s spare set fell off the back of the same lorry. This Hansel and Gretel is overstuffed with musical delights, but Edward Dick’s production often wilfully obscures and complicates what should be an ideal first opera; under-tens reading the synopsis might have difficulty matching salient plot points with what they see on stage.
Sensibly it’s sung in English, using David Pountney’s witty rhyming translation. Surtitles are provided, though clear diction makes them largely unnecessary. There are some magical moments: the journey through the forest is realised with the simplest of means, and a gingerbread cottage is conjured up by pointing the camera inside a well-stocked fridge (below left). Nestlé’s Caramac and Fry’s Turkish Delight play prominent roles.
Amy Freston’s fresh-voiced Dew Fairy (pictured right) wafts a can of air freshener over the sleeping pair. Elsewhere it’s all a bit needlessly odd; the dream-pantomime becomes an extended silent film showing the children escaping to a seaside B&B with a friendly granny, and a tonally jarring epilogue seems to be set in the 1970s.
After an underwhelming first half, everything suddenly springs to life in Act 3, largely due to the presence of Susan Bullock as the Witch, a terrifying vision in fur coat and sunglasses. She’s terrific, an adrenalin shot in human form. Her performance is just hammy enough, simultaneously funny and terrifying. First spotted peering through a window, she bursts in to catch Katie Bray’s Hansel and Fflur Wyn’s Gretel greedily wolfing down a sponge cake. Bullock towers over them; you suspect that she’d happily devour them raw. The neatest update is her substitution of an electric whisk for a magic wand. Rarely has a kitchen implement seemed so menacing.
Watching Bullock force feeding an immobilised Hansel with uncooked cake mixture is worth the ticket price alone. She stamps, snarls and spits, and it’s difficult not to cheer when Hansel literally gives her the finger. Her demise, a fiery annihilation in a domestic gas oven is a moment to savour, though the ensuing resurrection of the gingerbread children doesn’t move as it should. Supporting roles are well cast; Stephen Gadd’s gruff Peter is a standout, and the children’s chorus sing beautifully. Orchestrally it’s excellent; the young German conductor Christoph Altstaedt conjures ravishing sonorities from an on-form orchestra, the players audibly reaping the benefits of five years' exposure to the music of Wagner.
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