Friday 3 February 2017

Disturbing video games: Hansel and Gretel at Opera North

Hansel and Gretel - Opera North - Katie Bray as Hansel and Fflur Wyn as Gretel - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Hansel and Gretel (Act 2) - Opera North - Katie Bray as Hansel and Fflur Wyn as Gretel - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Humperdinck Hansel and Gretel, Katie Bray, Fflur Wyn, Susan Bullock, Stephen Gadd, dir: Edward Dick, cond: Christop Altstaedt; Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 2 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Imaginative use of video and strong performances make this new production a delight

Hansel and Gretel - Opera North - Katie Bray, Susan Bullock, Fflur Wyn - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Katie Bray, Susan Bullock, Fflur Wyn
Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Opera North's Spring season includes three operas, each on a fairy-tale theme, performed in the same adaptable set designed by Giles Cadle. Englebert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel opened at the Grand Theatre, Leeds on 2 February 2017, directed by Edward Dick, with sets by Giles Cadle, costumes by Christina Cunningham, lighting by Matthew Haskins, video by Ian William Galloway and choreography by Gary Clarke. Christoph Altstaedt conducted the orchestra of Opera North, with Katie Bray as Hansel, Fflur Wyn as Gretel, Stephen Gadd as Peter, Susan Bullock as Gertrud and the witch, Rachel J Mosley as the Sandman, and Amy Freston as the Dew Fairy.

Edward Dick's production imaginatively solved the problems of sharing the same basic set (and presumably a need for economy) by using video to create the effects. In Act 1, Hansel (Katie Bray) and Fllur Wyn (Gretel) spent a lot of time larking around with a video camera, the results being projected on the back wall of the rather grim kitchen where they lived (the time period was roughly modern). The result was startling and intriguing, with huge close-ups of the singers as they sang. When Gertrud (Susan Bullock), threw them out they ran and hid, which meant they heard Peter (Stephen Gadd) narrate the story of the witch. In Act Two they used the detritus from their father's failed business ventures (boxes of brushes, miniature Christmas trees) to create a magical projection of the forest, quite a remarkable video feat and a highly atmospheric design, though I was unsure what was live feed and what was video film. Gradually the acting-out of the story becomes 'real'.

The Sandman (Rachel J Mosley) was their grandmother, with a large teddy-bear, and the dream was of a wonderful trip to the seaside (again a video projection) full of running on the beach and food (a delightful close-up of the young actor Paolo Fialdini eating chips with a grin on his face), the other actors in the film being Melina Shillito and Val Tagger. The Dew Fairy (Amy Freston), proved to be the landlady from the film. Food was clearly the key, and in Act Three the fridge magically filled with food, mainly sweets and a close up from the video camera turned the whole kitchen into the magical house. Susan Bullock, as the witch, was a glamorous version of her previous incarnation, big hair, sun glasses and fur coat (certainly her first appearance made me think of the phrase 'All fur coat and no knickers').

Hansel and Gretel - Opera North - Stephen Gadd, Susan Bullock - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Stephen Gadd, Susan Bullock - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
With the witch safely in the oven (again a spectacular and vivid use of video), director Edward Dick gave himself a problem. How to stage the ending, his solution was very much in the tradition of German Regietheater, he simply re-wrote it. The release of the children and ending was a separate scene, far ahead in time. Hansel and Gretel were each now married with children and more prosperous, and this was a Christmas celebration. But Dick cleverly picked up on the Wagnerian references in Humperdinck's opera, and added another layer, the idea of the repeated telling of the same story from different points of view. So the final scene became a further re-telling (following that of Peter in Act 1, Hansel & Gretel in Acts 2 & 3), using the children.

A delightful and satisfying ending, but what it missed was the redemptive power of Humperdinck's opera, replacing it with Christmas cheer and a sense of enjoying a fairy-tale. Humperdinck and his sister though, did more than that. So whilst I enjoyed the production, and was impressed with the imagination which Edward Dick and his team showed, I came away thinking that deep down Dick does not trust fairy-tales.

Hansel and Gretel - Opera North - Rachel J Mosley - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Rachel J Mosley as Granny (the Sandman) - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Christoph Altstaedt drew characterful playing from the orchestra of Opera North. Certainly, the orchestra's strings lacked the rich amplitude of, say, the Vienna Philharmonic but Altstaedt's emphasis was on character rather than sheer beauty. Speeds were on the fluid side, without too much dwelling and overall the result had an appealing directness, and without the tendency to glossily dwell on the big tunes. My big reservation about Altstaedt, conducting at Opera North for the first time, was that balance often favoured the orchestra. This is something I have noticed before with the Grand Theatre, Leeds and perhaps sitting elsewhere (I was in the stalls, it would be different). But there were moments when I wanted less orchestra, and this was particularly true of Gretel's big moments when Fllur Wyn's lovely lyric soprano did not always ride the orchestra the way a bigger voiced singer might have.

Fflur Wyn and Katie Bray made a delightful and highly characterful pairing as the siblings, with Wyn nicely bossy as the elder sister and Bray brilliantly sulky. They clearly had developed a nice 'routine' which kept the action fresh, and imbued the two with a distinct sense of character. So there were no longeurs, as can sometimes happen, and no sense of the two singers going through their regular routine. It was also rather funny at times, and very poignant, the two kids imaginatively inventing their own world to replace the unsatisfactory one they lived in. All of the key moments were finely sung, and I was impressed with Bray's ability to squat on one leg whilst Wyn sang the song about the little man with the red cloak!

Hansel and Gretel - Opera North - Fflur Wyn, Katie Bray, Amy Freston - photo Robert Workman
Fflur Wyn, Katie Bray with Amy Freston as the Dew Fairy/Landlady
photo Robert Workman
Susan Bullock clearly had a whale of a time doubling Gertrud and the witch; her performance now goes alongside that of Pauline Tinsley in the David Pountney production for English National Opera as one of my talismanic performances. Bullock's Gertrud was sluttish and casual, but not nasty (wisely leaving room for redemption in Act Three). I loved the way she played with the broom, not just evoking the witch's ride (with us knowing she would be playing the character in Act Three), but also bringing out the sexual (phallic) element. This was one of a number of sexual aspects to the production, understated but there, which made things slightly less comfortable than a nice retelling of a tale.

As the witch Bullock was glamour to a tee, and also slightly self mocking as the witch played a role for the children. Her spells were all cooking, making cakes etc and the feeding of Hansel involved Bullock dripping cake mix into Katie Bray's mouth! Again, a fine 'ew' moment for a family audience, but also something slightly suggestive too. You could certainly hear that Bullock was managing and reining in her voice, and sometimes you might have wished for a tad more lyrical ease. But neither Gertrud nor the witch are easy characters, and Bullock's intelligence really made the music and the text count. And who could forget the Wagner implications of having a great Brunnhilde as the witch in her invocations and dramatics in Act Three, something that Dick and Bullock clearly played on.

Hansel and Gretel - Opera North - Fflur Wyn, Katie Bray - photo Robert Workman
Hansel and Gretel (Act One) - Fflur Wyn, Katie Bray - photo Robert Workman
I should also laud Dick and Opera North for having the correct casting and using woman as the witch rather than having a tenor, which Humperdinck did not intend. (I have to confess that the most startling incarnation of the role was a performance with piano with counter-tenor as the witch).

Stephen Gadd was nicely characterful as Peter, being outrageously drunk in Act One without being over done, and his innate charm came out so that we really forgave Peter. Perhaps the moment when Peter seems about to beat Gertrud (again, as we understand) could have been more dangerous, but with this show I am always aware of the difficulty of balancing Freudian danger with family friendly. In Act Three he had a jumper which lit up, to marvellous effect.

Rachel J Mosley is a member of the inestimable Opera North Chorus, and her solo roles included appearing in a number of roles in the 2016 Sondheim Into the Woods collaboration with the west Yorkshire Playhouse. She made a characterful Sandman. Not the most lyrically beautiful, but bringing out the granny charm made sense of the role in the particular context. Amy Freston is another Opera North Chorus member, who played Rapunzel in Into the Woods, and she was a delightful Dew Fairy. And Freston and Mosely re-appeared at the end, as Gretel's husband and Hansel's wife.
Hansel and Gretel - Opera North - Fflur Wyn, Katie Bray - photo Robert Workman
Hansel and Gretel (Act 3)- Opera North - Fflur Wyn, Katie Bray - photo Robert Workman

Edward Dick's production was not the darkest nor the most Freudian that I have seen, but he successfully brought a number of layers to the interpretation whilst he and his team showed great creative imagination in their use of mixed-media in evoking Humperdinck's magical world. This is the sort of production which manages to delight the children whilst providing adults with food for thought, aided by a strong series of performances from the cast. The opera is double-cast and later performances in the tour (from 2 March) will have a different cast and conductor, thus providing another view of the work.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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  • Music of a forgotten master: Daniel Grimwood in piano music by Adolf von Henselt - CD review
  • Muhly, Argento & Schumann: Alice Coote and Julius Drake at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • New ideas round the edges: I chat to Samir Savant, new Festival Director of the London Handel Festival - interview
  • Striking but contrasting 20th century works: Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO in Kancheli, Martinu and RVW - concert review
  • Getting beyond the music history: Rossi's Hebrew Psalms from Profeti della Quinta - CD review
  • Poetic exploration: Dresden Festival Orchestra in Schumann with Ivor Bolton and Jan Vogler - CD review
  • Intense abandon: Christine Rice in Poulenc's La voix humaine - concert review
  • Flute, viola and harp: Trio Anima in Debussy at Conway Hall - Concert review
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