Royal College of Music – Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel; directed by Stephen Barlow; conducted by Michael Rosewell

Hänsel und Gretel – fairy-tale opera in three Acts to a libretto by Adelheid Wette based on the Grimm brothers’ version of the folk-story [sung in German, with English surtitles]

Hänsel – Emma Roberts
Gretel – Sofie Lund-Tonnesen
Mother – Lylis O’Hara
Father – Theo Perry
Sandman – Sofia Kirwan-Baez
Dew Fairy – Clara Barbier Serrano
The Witch – Michael Bell

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

Stephen Barlow – Director
Yannis Thavoris – Designer
Rory Beaton – Lighting Designer
PJ McEvoy – Video Designer

4 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 14 March, 2022
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

Opera’s favourite sibling rivals Hansel and Gretel have survived many hardships and indignities, and still they come up smiling in this new staging by Stephen Barlow for the Royal College of Music’s opera studio. Like the two children in the Charles Laughton film The Night of the Hunter, Hansel and Gretel endure.

Barlow’s setting is Berlin just on the cusp of the Wall coming down in 1989 – think the great TV series Deutschland or the similarly remarkable 2006 film The Lives of Others. The family lives in a penitentially ugly apartment, with propaganda posters, terrible wallpaper, an empty fridge, and a portrait of Erich Honecker, the DDR’s last communist leader, glowering protectively. Yannis Thavoris’s designs and costumes are sharply observed and thought through, and they get the point of lack of any sort of nourishment and an abundance of anxiety. When the children get lost in the forest, they get stuck in a maze of hedgehog anti-tank defences (currently a familiar sight in all the Ukraine reportage) right next to the Berlin Wall itself, the effect exaggerated by Rory Beaton’s expressionist, cinematic lighting.

But it is not a simple case of East Germany bad, West Germany good. The Sandman sends the children to sleep with something illegal, and their ensuing hallucinatory vision of reunification unfolds via PJ McEvoy’s video newsreel collage rather than the fourteen angels standing watch during the night, and with the new dawn that opens Act Three, the Berlin Wall has indeed come down. And what does a capitalist, free-market economy bring? Chocolate, and plenty of it, a case of out of the frying pan and into a great vat of bubbling choccy. Be careful what you wish for, as Barlow suggests with bracing cynicism.

Perhaps we’re all a bit too used to stage business doing stuff during the longer orchestral passages, but having the Overture, the Witch’s Ride, and the Prelude to Act Three in front of a black curtain was a trio too far of missed opportunity, but the chocolate factory’s robotic assembly line made a neat point that there will always be masters and servants, while the Witch Rosina Leckermaul’s smart chocolate shop is a joy.

Emma Roberts as slacker Hansel and Sofie Lund-Tonnesen as a wholesome Free German Youth member sang and acted the two leads with enchanting, natural ease. Words were good, their Act One playing and bickering was very fluent, and Hansel taking charge of things later rather touching. Lylis O’Hara sang strongly as Mother, not surprisingly more exasperated by her husband than by her two children. He, the Father, was played convincingly by Theo Perry as a feckless, boozy chancer, and they both grabbed reunification opportunity with great gusto. Sofia Kirwan-Baez sang the Sandman as a black-clad Goth with much lip-curling attitude, while Clara Barbier Serrano’s leotard-and-leggings Dew Fairy briefly stole the show as a lovely send-up of 1980s’ gym-bunnies, and brilliantly sung. As the Witch, tenor Michael Bell was a terrifying vision in bulging twinset, big bows, a yellow fun-fur coat and a hat that will haunt me. His singing captured a nicely varied mix of greed, impatience and threat with all the sneer and hauteur of an accomplished drag act, and, not surprisingly, he brought the house down.

The medium-sized orchestra produced a persuasive, late-Romantic sound for Humperdinck’s wonderful score, guided by Michael Rosewell’s detailed conducting.

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