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Sunday, 26 November 2017

Portable operatic delights for everyone: Pop-Up Opera's Hansel & Gretel & the V&A

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Polly Leech, Sofia Larsson, Pop-Up Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Polly Leech, Sofia Larsson, Pop-Up Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Humperdink Hansel & Gretel; Sofia Larsson, Polly Leech, Ailsa Mainwaring, James Harrison, dir: James Huntley, md: Berrak Dyer; Pop-Up Opera at the Victoria & Albert Museum
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Nov 18 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Pop-Up Opera's delightful chamber-version of Humperdinck's classic

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Ailsa Mainwaring, Pop-Up Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Ailsa Mainwaring, Pop-Up Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
This was my first visit to a Pop-Up Opera show, and the first time I had seen a staged performance of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel staged. In a way it is two different works. Scored for a Wagner-sized orchestra, early productions were conducted by Richard Strauss (1893) and Mahler (1894). But singers who look and act like children and can also make their mark above such forces can’t be that easy to come by.

Pop-Up Opera’s chamber version in the Lecture Theatre at the Victoria & Albert Museum on 18 November 2017 took the piece back to its roots as a children’s entertainment, performed by Sofia Larsson, Polly Leech, Ailsa Mainwaring, James Harrison, Rebecca Moon, director James Hurley, movement director Caitlin Fretwell Walsh, musical director Berrak Dyer. Cut to less than two hours, it was child-friendly as well as adult-friendly. Everyone had things to laugh at as well as things to think about. The Brothers Grimm and Dr Freud and their dark forests of the middle-European mind are not far away, and you don’t have to be a grown-up to be thinking about how being poor is really bad for families – or how sugar makes you an addict. And how to play all this post-Savile when there are actual children in the audience…

I felt that Pop-Up Opera got all this right.
It was sung in German, with the surtitles simplifying or even glossing over the complicated stuff and updating it for a contemporary audience: a reference to Strictly; “Just style it out”, as well as giving us some truly awful puns misappropriating German words for English non-equivalents: “drum”... There were lots of visual gags too: the hot dog smiling at the protagonists from the Witch’s cottage, and logistically it was very inventive, with broom handles being used for all sorts of props and scenery, and the Witch’s cottage constructed out of flat cardboard by two stagehands who turned out to be the puppeteers and the parents (and Witch).

The singers’ German was idiomatic to the point where it was easy to forget they weren’t singing in English. Polly Leech’s Hansel and Sofia Larsson’s Gretel blended well and managed to keep the sound going whilst leaping energetically around the stage (and in between mouthfuls of food). They were totally convincing as siblings, though Larsson did that tall person’s thing of playing a little girl as though permanently desperate for the loo. James Harrison’s pompous Father had a tough time pulling off the drunk acting – but then, who doesn’t? Ailsa Mainwaring had great fun as the Witch, and Rebecca Moon was creepy in bright yellow as the Sandman. It was terrific ensemble acting and singing.

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Sofia Larsson, Ailsa Mainwaring, Polly Leech, James Harrison Pop-Up Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Sofia Larsson, Ailsa Mainwaring, Polly Leech, James Harrison - Pop-Up Opera
(Photo Robert Workman)
The wonderful pianist / MD Berrack Dyer kept the whole thing moving at quite a lick, played for laughs (especially all those Wagner gags) and made for an altogether delightful afternoon.

The show was billed as being part of the major exhibition at the V&A, and the Passion and Power theme was there, albeit in a form that didn’t need a disclaimer for the party of school children, in the front two rows and loving every minute. I hope they got a taste for the art form and will be back – though maybe not for Tannhäuser or Salome in the exhibition downstairs just yet.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Sofia Larsson, Polly Leech, Pop-Up Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Sofia Larsson, Polly Leech, Pop-Up Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Pop-Up Opera
Hansel & Gretel
Hansel – Polly Leech
Gretel – Sofia Larsson
Father – James Harrison
Mother / Witch – Ailsa Mainwaring
Sandman / Dew Fairy – Rebecca Moon
Musical Director / Pianist – Berrak Dyer

Stage Director – James Hurley
Assistant Director / Movement Director – Caitlin Fretwell Walsh
Designer – Fiona Rigler
Captions – Harry Percival
Producers – Clementine Lovell and Fiona Johnston



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