Friday 24 August 2012

Co-Opera Co - Hansel and Gretel

Co-Opera co, Hansel & Gretel, August 2012
Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel might have an apparently simple story based on a fairytale, but the opera itself is a deceptively complex beast. For a start, Humperdinck was one of Wagner's followers, he was an assistant to Wagner and music-tutor to Siegfried Wagner. This means that the score is very fully and richly orchestrated; it might be about children but it requires more than children's voices. Also, scenically it calls for quite a bit of skill, with the various magical transformations that are required. For performers, it has one fatal, yawning trap. Hansel and Gretel might be on stage for most of the three acts, but unless they are strong and sympathetic performers, there is a strong danger of the witch snatching the opera from them. The witch is in fact quite a small role, but it is such a gift that, in the right hands, it can run away with the opera. So all in all, quite a few challenges, and a very apt work for a group such as Co-Opera Co which aims to help coach young opera singers and give them experience. We saw the first night of their new production of Hansel and Gretel at the John McIntosh Theatre in the London Oratory School on 23 August 2012.

Conductor Stephen Higgins conducted a lively account of the overture, but the small band (around 17 players) took some time to settle. When the curtain rose it became apparent that, despite the reduced orchestra, the orchestral sound was a little too present in the small theatre, balance was not quite ideal. This is probably because, even in its reduced version, Humperdinck's orchestration is very full.

Director James Bonas and designer Carl Davies had moved the period to the 1950's. The stage was hung with washing, clearly Mother (Shuna Sendall) was taking in laundry. Hansel (Susanne Holmes) and Gretel (Llio Evans) developed, from the start, a lively and believable rapport. Their games felt natural, and not embarrassingly contrived. Holmes, who I had previous been impressed with as Anna in Intermezzo at Buxton, made a strong Hansel. Starting off reading a Biggles Annual, she was characterful and naughty without being a complete bully. It was unfortunate that her costume (short jacket, long shorts, beret and glasses) made Holmes look more like an intellectual American Lesbian than a boy. Note to designer and wardrobe: if you put a woman in long-ish shorts, at least try and cut them so that they look boyish round the waist and hips. Holmes's diction was strong and her vocal line came over richly and clearly. Holmes is definitely someone to watch.

Of Evans's Gretel, I was less sure. As a character, her Gretel was superbly done, with pertness, a natural charm and a ready interaction with Holmes. At the start of the piece her voice sounded rather tight in the upper register and I was hoping that as she relaxed into the performance, this would go and her voice would flower. This never happened, her Gretel sounded rather dry and a trifle under par all the way through. Her diction was also not quite clear enough. She and Holmes created a lovely rapport, which developed throughout the opera.

Now Gretel is one of those roles, like the Cunning Little Vixen, which are essentially written for a pre-war voice type which has almost disappeared. They require a  lyric style voice but one with power and stamina, one that can cut through the orchestra. Nowadays, the role is given to younger singers who have not yet developed the habits (vibrato, wobble etc) which come with the modern dramatic voice. So I reserve judgement on Evans, as she clearly has some experience behind her and has a charming stage presence.

Sendall was a bit understated as Mother, not quite angry and edgy enough. But Mother is hardly a gift of a role. Stephen John Svanholm spent the end of the first act hilariously drunk as Father, perhaps too hilariously so. But he and Sendall developed a nice rapport and managed some neat pieces of business.

The change from act 1 to act 2, the Witches Ride, is one of the scenic challenges of the opera. At first Bonas gave us generic running about from the cast, but then behind one of the huge sheets of washing, images of the witch were projected. A neat, and rather eerie, solution to the problem.

The set for the forest was essentially that for act 1, with just a few adjustments. This worked well enough, especially with Paul J Need's atmospheric lighting. Holmes and Evans were delightfully touching in these scenes, with their rapport paying off. Bonas introduced some nice touches, such as the fact that Gretel's garland of flowers becomes a paper crown. I am not quite sure what the Sandman's costume represented. When Rahel Moore appeared she seemed a cross between an airman and a glamorous RAC motorcyclist. Lovely though she was, Moore's diction was poor, and her delivery lacked the ideal freedom and simplicity which the role calls for.

For the dream sequence, there were no angels just voices off stage, and then the witch (Sendall again) in a horrifyingly unflattering costume appeared and gloated over the children and then started projecting images of previous children she had trapped. A neat, and rather touching, solution to the scenic challenge.

Rahel Moore reappeared as the Dew fairy, in an amazing costume which made her almost doll-like. Again she looked ravishing, but her diction was still lacking and I found her delivery a little uneven.

The witch's house, when it appeared, was a scenic triumph. A huge red and white striped beribboned tent which cascaded from the rear of the stage with, eventually, the witch herself atop it with in red and white striped costume and hair, looking for all the world like Dame Edna Everage at her most over the top. (Though for me, the ensemble resembled a demented version one of the lady-with-a-crinoline toilet roll holders that one of my aunts used to make as presents).

When I had read the the production was set in the 1950's and that the same singer was doubling Mother and the Witch, then I had assumed that Bonas would be giving us a budget version of David Pountney's famous ENO production. But, not a whit. Here the witch was a truly monstrous and original creation and Sendall seized her opportunity with both hands. She was vocal and physically both fearsome and impressive, with a range of laughs and cackles which were truly scary - completely different from her incarnation as Mother.

Co-Opera co, Hansel & Gretel, August 2012
Bonas managed all the bits of business in this act rather well, Evans and Holmes were a true double act and Sendall seemed to feed off this to bolster her gloriously monstrous creation. I have seen witches scarier but never one so monstrous. When it came to the ending, the chorus remained off stage and for the children coming alive, various of the children's garments hanging on the set lit up and gradually rose in to the flies, a magical effect.

In terms of stage-craft, the whole company were incredibly hard working and it showed in the way that they performed as a fine team. There was only one niggle, that people occasionally block each other's light, which may simply be a limitation in the lighting rig.

Apart from my reservations about balance, conductor Stephen Higgins was an adept and sympathetic accompanist.

This was an imaginative and hugely enjoyable production, one which managed to engage and surprise all evening.

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