Welsh National Opera at Sadler’s Wells – Hansel and Gretel (11 March)

Hansel and Gretel [Sung in David Poutney’s English translation]

Hansel – Imelda Drumm
Gretel – Linda Kitchen
Mother – Anne-Marie Owens
Father – David Kempster
Sandman / Dew Fairy – Anna Ryberg
The Witch – Peter Hoare

Children of Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg, Glantaf, Cardiff

Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Alexander Polianichko

Director – Richard Jones
Revival Director – Annilese Miskimmon
Designer – John Macfarlane
Lighting – Jennifer Tipton
Choreography – Linda Dobell

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 11 March, 2004
Venue: Sadler’s Wells, London

For its third offering this week at Sadler’s Wells, Welsh National Opera mounted a revival of its 1999 Laurence Olivier Award-winning production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic opera for children (and adults!).

Richard Jones’s idea of taking the opera out of its chocolate-box, nursery-rhyme setting and back to the darker fairy-tale world of the Grimm brothers – and then adding a further layer of contemporary comment and darkness relating to hunger, poverty, suggested violence within the family, and perhaps a commentary on our throwaway society – still works very well. It adds a strong helping of black humour to the piece for the adults, and yet, on the evidence of this performance, still seems to satisfy the younger audience.

The darkness and focus is immediately apparent as the curtain rises on a front-drop depicting a place-setting with an empty plate – an immediate visual contrast with Humperdinck’s overture, which gives you most of the opera’s themes and motifs in wonderful counterpoint. The orchestra produced a wonderful, full and Wagnerian sound with a warm rock-solid brass underlay in the climactic sections. Throughout the week the orchestral playing has been of a very high standard and so it was here under Alexander Polianichko’s sympathetic baton. There was a welcome lack of schmaltz! All the complex interweaving of themes was clear and I particularly liked the recorder cuckoo effects.

The lion’s share of the singing rests very much on the two title roles and here the two singers brought different qualities. Linda Kitchen really looks the part of the small, girlish, slightly self-righteous Gretel and her superb acting was a well-observed routine of little dances, wobbly pirouettes, sulks and smiles that brought the character vividly to life. Unfortunately, vocally she seems no longer to have the necessary lightness of voice to be entirely musically convincing. There was perhaps overuse of an obtrusive vibrato which meant some of her higher notes were not ideally floated, and indeed sounded a bit flat. The children’s prayer-duet really suffered because of this – and at the moment where they become terrified in the wood this Gretel’s cries were surely a bit too Valkyrie-like (though I have never realised before how close this bit of writing is to Brünnhilde’s music!).

Imelda Drumm, who sang Hansel, was much more secure vocally, although again the voice is now a bit on the “big” side. Rather taller than his sister, this Hansel towered over Gretel, but the interaction between the two was good, although Drumm’s acting looked a bit more studied than natural. It is hard to bring trouser-roles off completely and this Hansel was a bit too feminine.

My real problem with the eponymous pair was that not enough of the text of David Poutney’s modernised translation was audible – some of the other singers managed this so much better, especially David Kempster’s Father, which was nicely sung in his well-focussed, rounded baritone. Every word was audible, and his description of the witches was nicely done. The father is the more sympathetic of the parents, although in this production there are inferences that he has the potential to be violent when drunk. The moment when he produces the broom to demonstrate how the witches fly and the mother sings something like “don’t hit me with that again” was very funny.

Anne-Marie Owens sang the downtrodden, weary mother in a suitably operatic and Wagnerian way as the music demands. Not all the text was audible, but her arrival phrase “what the hell do you think you are doing?” was hilarious – delivered as it was in a wonderfully deadpan way. I also liked the way Owens and Kempster played their relationship, busily helping themselves to sausage and sauerkraut, and beer or tea, before thinking about the children.

In this production the Witch is given to a tenor, rather than the usual Wagnerian mezzo-soprano – and this pays some dividends. Peter Hoare really sang the role, which can often be a vocal caricature as well as a visual one. He was dressed as a plump grey-haired elderly lady with a black blouse and string of pearls, but as her malevolence was brought out in the music so he transformed into a grotesque version of one of the “Two Fat Ladies”. The whole scene was a modern-day cookery programme with throwaway society values gone horribly wrong. It was simultaneously hilarious and unsettling, particularly since Hoare did not go over the top with vocal effects. Hansel ends up trussed up like a roast waiting to be cooked, and Gretel not far from being baked either. What a fantastic moment of the score this is as well. Luckily the Witch gets her comeuppance and is propelled into the huge stainless-steel designer oven of her modern kitchen.

The overall mood is, as indicated, rather dark but there were moments of magic too. I liked the puppet sandman, which was magically realised; both handled and crisply sung by Anna Ryberg who also doubled as a pert Dew Fairy. The angel sequence – one of Humperdinck’s most-lush pieces of writing with its post-Wagnerian, almost Straussian orchestration – was realised as a huge banquet with the two children enjoying a formal adult-dinner for two, being attended upon by an army of winged, rotund porcine chefs led by a fish-headed waiter. Fantastic imagery!

This hugely enjoyable revival is well-worth catching as the WNO travels, with Madama Butterfly and Eugene Onegin, to the Birmingham Hippodrome, Milton Keynes Theatre, Southampton Mayflower Theatre, Swansea Grand Theatre and Bristol Hippodrome in the forthcoming weeks.

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