Out of the Shadows

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Theatrical dazzle: Hansel & Gretel re-invented as a modern theatrical fairytale at British Youth Opera

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Eva Gheorghiu, Fiona Finsbury, Rosalind Dobson - British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Eva Gheorghiu, Fiona Finsbury, Rosalind Dobson - British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Humperdinck Hansel & Gretel; HIlary Cronin, Ellie Neate, Amy Holyland, Fiona Finsbury, Jack Lee, Rosalind Dobson, Eva Gheorghiu, directed: Daisy Evans, music director: Stephen Higgins, Southbank Sinfonia; British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 August 2021
A brilliantly theatrical evening, though perhaps best to forget about Humperdinck's original opera

British Youth Opera's Summer season this year has moved to Opera Holland Park where the company is performing a pair of contrasting operas, one of Rossini's early farse is being given alongside a very modern remake of Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel. We caught British Youth Opera's production of Hansel & Gretel on 6 August 2021, directed by Daisy Evans, with Stephen Higgins as musical director and musical arranger, sets and costumes by Loren Elstein, lighting by Jake Wiltshire, sound design by Max Pappenheim and puppetry directed by Matthew Forbes, with Hilary Cronin as Mother, Ellie Neate as Gemma (Gretel), Amy Holyland as Hannah (Hansel), Fiona Finsbury as the Witch, Jack Lee as Father, Rosalind Dobson as the Dew Fairy, Eva Gheorghiu as the Sandman, and an onstage band including Jack Beesley (keyboard, trainee repetiteur), Olivia Shotton (violin, trainee assistant musical director) and members of Southbank Sinfonia.

Daisy Evans is the founder and artistic director of Silent Opera and the evening was very much inspired by Silent Opera's work. We were all given headphones and the sounds we heard were a mix of the live singers, the live instrumentalists, electronic music and pre-recorded symphonic music (mainly the orchestral interludes in the opera), with the arrangement being by Stephen Higgins and Max Pappenheim. The performance featured a new libretto by Evans and was more of a free fantasy on Humperdinck's opera, all the key musical points were there but not necessarily in the right order or as we originally knew them. The singers were sometimes accompanied by the live instrumentalists (keyboard, violin, cello, flute, trumpet) and sometimes by electronics, this latter moved between an evocation of Humperdinck's harmonies to something more modern.

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Ellie Neate and Amy Holyland - British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Ellie Neate and Amy Holyland - British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Evans also brought an element of theatrical magic to the production, including puppetry, shadow puppets, song and dance routines and much else besides. Whatever you thought of the production's concept there was no doubt that the young singers were having a great deal of fun as well as getting a good work out in theatrical techniques. And not just the singers, of course, BYO's Summer course includes a whole technical and musical team too, so everyone was challenged. And all rose to the challenge brilliantly, this was a superbly theatrical evening, full of engagingly inventive moments.

It just didn't always have a lot to do with Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel.

Evans and Higgins had given the opera a radical makeover. We began with a student performance of Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel with the highlights from Acts 1 and 2 performed (in dirndl and lederhosen) by Rosalind Dobson and Eva Gheorghiu (technically the Dew Fairy and Sandman), and directed by Fiona Finsbury (technically the Witch). Gemma and Hannah (Ellie Neate and Amy Holyland) are in the audience and get bored, eventually interrupting the performance and causing chaos, with the resultant dressing down from Mother (Hilary Cronin). By the time Father (Jack Lee) appears, late for the performance but happy about a new deal, Mother has sent the children off without their phones. Gemma and Hannah then get lost, backstage at the theatre and explore it; the production was very much about theatrical magic in all its forms. 

Simultaneously (the headphones featured two tracks enabling you to follow either adults or 'children') Father and Mother get in contact with the 'Witch' and conspire to involve Gemma and Hannah in the production. So Act Three is the company's production of Hansel & Gretel but with the reluctant involvement of Gemma and Hannah. The result was moved (somewhat uneasily) between these two theatrical worlds, and occasionally Evans made the action step out entirely so that some elements of the Witch's role became independent cabaret-type song-and-dance numbers.

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Chloe Underwood and Kristina Ammattil - British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Chloe Underwood and Kristina Ammattil - British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park (Photo Tristram Kenton)

The whole was done with enormous theatrical dazzle and great brilliance. The chorus (Kristina Alice Ammattil, Charlotte Kennedy, Chloe Underwood, Honor Whitely), Sandman (Eva Gheorghiu) and Dew Fairy (Rosalind Dobson) had a great deal more to do than in a traditional production and did so with great skill and imagination. The combination of puppetry and dance used for some of the numbers, notably the Act Two dream pantomime was both brilliantly inventive and skillfully executed. 

As the Witch, Fiona Finsbury (a soprano, so not a voice type normally associated with the role) skillfully managed the transitions between harrassed teacher in charge of an opera project and vividly theatrical if none-threatening witch. And her song-and-dance skills were good as well. Ellie Neate and Amy Holyland impressed as the two believably annoying brats who managed to lose themselves in the magic of theatre, with Jack Lee and Hilary Cronin as the surprisingly engaging, harassed parents.

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Jack Lee and Hilary Cronin - British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Jack Lee and Hilary Cronin - British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park (Photo Tristram Kenton)

The purpose of BYO is to give young singers and trainees experience of opera and music theatre at the highest level, and this the production did in spades. My views of the production concept are, to an extent, immaterial because this evening gave the singers and trainees a superb grounding in a range of modern theatrical techniques which they will need and use in their careers. It also created an immense amount of theatrical magic and joy, receiving a strong welcome from the audience at the end.





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