Friday, 28 June 2019

Musically satisfying: Hansel & Gretel at Grange Park Opera

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Soraya Mafi, Caitlin Hulcup - Grange Park Opera 2019 - Richard Hubert Smith
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 2) - Soraya Mafi, Caitlin Hulcup - Grange Park Opera 2019
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Humperdinck Hansel and Gretel; Soraya Mafi, Caitlin Hulcup, Susan Bullock, William Dazeley, dir: Stephen Medcalf, orchestra of English National Opera, cond: George Jackson; Grange Park Opera Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 June 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A musically literate and satisfying performance illuminates a picture-book production

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Susan Bullock - Grange Park Opera 2019 - Richard Hubert Smith
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 3) - Susan Bullock as the Witch
Grange Park Opera 2019 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale. But from our contemporary perspective it is difficult to make such a setting seem anything but picturesque, so opera directors have mined the psychological elements underlying the story. Two iconic 20th century productions, that of David Pountney for English National Opera [see Duncan Hadfield's 1998 review in the Independent] and by Richard Jones for Welsh National Opera [see Stephen Walsh's 1999 review in the Independent] set the piece in urban 1950s with the wood and the witch representing a psychological nightmare based on reality.

Stephen Medcalf's production of Englebert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel was shared between the Royal Northern College of Music (where it debuted last year, see review in The Arts Desk) and Grange Park Opera, where we saw the second performance on Thursday 27 June 2019. Caitlin Hulcup was Hansel and Soraya Mafi was Gretel with Susan Bullock as Mother and the Witch, William Dazeley as Father, Lizzie Holmes as the Dew Fairy and Eleanor Sanderson-Nash as the Sandman. George Jackson conducted the orchestra of English National Opera.

Medcalf and his designer Yannis Thavoris set the piece in the 1890s with the family as urban poor, whilst the 'forest' is simply the outside city (Thavoris provided a striking forest of street lights) and foraging for the children consists of scrounging and stealing Oliver Twist-style. The witch's house was in fact a magic sweet shop, but its interior was a magically larger version of the children's home. All this would seem to provide some interesting psychological layers to explore, particularly as the production had Susan Bullock doubling as the Mother and the Witch.

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Susan Bullock, William Dazeley - Grange Park Opera 2019 - Richard Hubert Smith
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 1) - Susan Bullock, William Dazeley - Grange Park Opera 2019
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
In fact the urban forest entirely lacked a sense of danger and, populated during the Witches ride by a cast of Dickensian-type characters, seemed simply picturesque with the children remarkably in charge of their own destiny. Whilst the third act's setting in a version of the children's home had interesting resonances, none of this was explored as Susan Bullock's Witch was a magnificently comic creation which had little link, physical or metaphorical, to her performance in Act One as Mother.

The intention, as with the Royal Opera's disappointing recent new production of the opera [see my review] seemed to be to provide an evening of unthreatening entertainment, and within these constraints Medcalf's production was surprisingly imaginative, and coupled to one of the finest musical performances of the opera that I have heard in a long time.

The musical delights started with the first notes of the overture as the horn melody rose out of the pit, rich in texture and beautifully shaped.
George Jackson and the orchestra brought out the well-made counterpoint which underlies Humperdinck's score. Yes, the glorious melodies were there, finely phrased and, well, glorious. But weaving them together was a sense of this beautifully made German counterpoint, which showed the work's complex history. The orchestra of English National Opera seemed to be demonstrating what we were missing by not using a full orchestra for ENO's recent production of Hansel and Gretel at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre [see Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today]. And George Jackson, a young conductor to watch, was clearly alive to the various resonances in Humperdinck's score. Yes it is Wagnerian, but I also heard pre-echoes of Mahler in the Act Two folk-sequences. Throughout the amount of detail was wondrous, yet woven into an enchanting construction which mixed humour with the magical. The angel pantomime at the end of Act Two provided the element of transformative radiance, which was entirely lacking in Medcalf's lamp-lighter's ballet. Whatever other musical delights the production offered, and there were plenty, I kept coming back to Jackson and the orchestra.

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Caitlin Hulcup, Lizzie Holmes, Soraya Mafi - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 3) - Caitlin Hulcup, Lizzie Holmes, Soraya Mafi - Grange Park Opera 2019
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Soraya Mafi and Caitlin Hulcup made a delightful pairing as Gretel and Hansel, for all the picturesque charm of the characters' depiction there was a fundamental seriousness to their performance which emphasised the music's quality. Mafi was a poised Gretel, shaping the lovely melodies carefully and expressively, and she was matched by Hulcup's wonderfully boyish Hansel (one of the best 'boys' I have seen in this opera for a long time), with the two voices blending and contrasting. They kept the action moving so that the scenes between them in the first two acts, which can sometimes drag somewhat, flew by.

There was a fundamental realism to Susan Bullock and William Dazeley's performances as Mother and Father which anchored Act One in the real world rather than magic or fairy-tale, and this vastly benefitted the performance. Both were well sung, providing rounded depictions rather than just sketched in 'characters'. Bullock was transformed in Act Three and her Witch was a gloriously comic creation, vocally commanding and delightfully outrageous.

Eleanor Sanderson-Nash's Sandman was a louche opium addict, a picturesque and nicely bohemian touch, whilst Lizzie Holme's charming Dew Fairy was in fact the milk-man. Both women looked unrecognisable in the male personae. The women from this year's ensemble at Grange Park Opera provided the children's chorus at the end, appearing from the oven as a fleet of refugees from Oliver Twist.

For some reason this was sung in German, when the accessibility of the production would have suggested using an English translation. But the cast's diction was excellent and all made Humperdinck's setting of the German tell.

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Susan Bullock - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 3) - Susan Bullock - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
George Jackson, the orchestra and the cast made this performance a musical delight which meant that the music transcended the rather picture-book nature of the production, giving us a highly musically literate and satisfying evening.

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