Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

Opera Holland Park

Kensington, London, 8 June 2009 4.5 stars

Hansel und Gretel OHP Opera Holland Park's production of Hänsel und Gretel is stunning with its simplicity and musicality. After the first night I instructed all my students to go to see it and I urge everybody else to try to catch a performance during the current run.

In spite of a very small stage and probable financial restrictions, the production tells the story as envisaged by the librettist Adelheid Wette and the composer Engelbert Humperdinck. It is a fairytale, based on a story by the brothers Grimm, where good triumphs over evil. Unlike the Royal Opera House and earlier English National Opera productions with some imposed psychological interpretation and rather frightening images, OHP's staging is true to the libretto and it is child-friendly.

With the exception of a big door in the middle, the scenery on stage is non-existent. But Holland Park itself supplies a more realistic scenario than any expensive staging. The trees, or their shadows, are clearly visible through the slightly open canvas tent and the birds in the park diligently sing throughout. The forest scene – especially the Cuckoo song – has never been as credible as in this production.

The costumes are well chosen. Hänsel and Gretel's clothes look like school uniforms: I have no idea if Hänsel and Gretel in the fairytale attend school, but on stage these costumes immediately establish the status of the children. The shiny green dress worn by the Witch helps to clarify, why the children – in their grey school uniforms – are initially attracted to the evil woman and her delicious chocolate house.

In Stephen Barlow's excellent and charming production, the plot is seen through children's eyes. The Sandman is a soldier and the Dew Fairy is a nurse: these are characters whom children can identify with. Hänsel and Gretel's dream, when lost and asleep in the forest, is peopled with children as angels, a prince and a princess and a royal entourage which includes penguins who are waiters.

Hansel und Gretel OHPThe dramatic portrayals are spot on. Gretel (Joana Seara) happens to be rather small and her pure voice adds to the illusion of her being a child. Hänsel (Catherine Hopper) is taller but charmingly boyish. Both of them sing, dance and act with gusto.

Veteran singer Donald Maxwell beautifully sings the role of the Father and Anne Mason is excellent in the double role of the Mother and the Witch.

On the first night, conductor Peter Selwyn seemed cautious in the overture but initial nerves soon settled and he presented a lyrical, detailed and almost Goodall-type interpretation. I have never heard Hänsel and Gretel's prayer so softly and so expansively sung as on this occasion: it was heart-breakingly beautiful. Praise, of course, is due to the singers but the ultimate credit belongs to the conductor. Unfortunately he had a chamber orchestra – rather than a large Wagnerian orchestra – at his disposal but one soon got used to the chamber dimensions. Full marks to members of the orchestra: they must have had a difficult time playing in such a cold and windy weather as on the first night. Although I am familiar with the score, this was the first time that, thanks to Charles Fullbrook's skilful playing, I noticed the importance of the short timpani solo at the moment when the Father realises that his children are in danger.

The finale, with the double round dance of the children, was a dramatic and musical triumph. As, indeed, was the whole production. Don't miss it!

By Agnes Kory

Photo Credits: Fritz Curzon


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Review: Hansel und Gretel at the Royal Opera
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CD Review: Hansel und Gretel peformed by Philharmonia/Sir Charles Mackerras (Chandos)