Saturday 17 June 2023

We simply forget that there was anything young artist about the evening: Hansel & Gretel at Opera Holland Park

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Shakira Tsindos, Emily Christina Loftus - Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Shakira Tsindos, Emily Christina Loftus - Opera Holland Park 

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel; Shakira Tsindos, Emily Christina Loftus, Ella de Jongh, Edward Kim, Madeline Boreham, director John Wilkie/Bence Kalo, City of London Sinfonia, conductor Charlotte Corderoy; Opera Holland Park

The annual Young Artists performance proves a superb ensemble account of the opera that drew us into the story and never let us leave.

One of the reasons why Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel remains such a popular staple in the opera house is that it combines a potent story with great tunes. Written before Freud, yet full of intriguing psychological depth, the opera provides directors with plenty of grist for their mills, and yet in a production that takes the story at face value the resonances remain.

John Wilkie's new production of Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel for Opera Holland Park is definitely family friendly. The production debuted on 10 June 2023, and we caught it on Friday 16 June, which was the Young Artists Performance, with Charlotte Corderoy conducting the City of London Sinfonia, and Bence Kalo directing a cast of Shakira Tsindos (Hansel), Emily Christina Loftus (Gretel), Ella de Jongh (the Gingerbread Witch), Edward Kim (Peter), Madeline Boreham (Gertrud), Claudia Haussmann (The Sandman), and Eleanor Broomfield (The Dew Fairy). There were eight singers from the Opera Holland Park chorus plus children from Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. Designs were by Neil Irish, lighting by Robert Price, movement by Michael Spenceley.

The Young Artists Scheme at Opera Holland Park plays an important role on the company's ethos, not only does the scheme give the year's young artists full performances of their own (this year the Young Artist cast was giving three performances of Hansel & Gretel), but former young artists form the backbone of the company and so that this season includes a dozen former young artists.

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Eleanor Broomfield (Dew Fairy) - Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Eleanor Broomfield (Dew Fairy) - Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance

John Wilkie and Neil Irish have created a very family friendly production, yet one that hints at the intriguing psychological elements underneath without being too dark, whilst it miraculously manages to avoid coy sweetness. We begin, during the overture, with Hansel and Gretel in bed, reading a book of fairy tales, the characters come to life and these eight figures play an important role in the opera. The setting is charming, but there was enough realism for mother, Gertrud's outburst in Act One to count. 

The Dream Pantomime was a vision of a better life as fourteen maids in animal masks arranged a nice middle-class house and reunited Hansel and Gretel with their parents. That the scene with the witch might be the reverse of this dream was suggested by the fact that her gingerbread house was the children's house simply turned around (in front of our eyes), but that was a dream too was suggested by the way the fairy tale characters were involved, helping Hansel and Gretel. The children's chorus was very well handled, definitely avoiding the cute.

Whilst the story might be a child-friendly one, Humperdinck's music is richly romantic in a neo-Wagnerian vein. Hansel & Gretel is one of the few successful operas written by one of Wagner's disciples; Humperdinck was on the music staff at Bayreuth for the premier of Parsifal as well as giving young Siegfried Wagner music lessons, and you can tell. But it means that the opera is a big sing, there is no room for partially formed voices, the two leads need to grasp the music and run with it.

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Shakira Tsindos, Emily Christina Loftus - Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Shakira Tsindos, Emily Christina Loftus - Opera Holland Park

And this, Shakira Tsindos and Emily Christina Loftus did in spades. From the outset, when they are acting in dumb show during the overture, the two formed a delightful connection. Tsindos was an appealing Hansel, unruly yet not too brattish and with personality in spades. She was matched by Loftus whose Gretel was perhaps sharper and more street-smart than usual. There were lots of delights on the way, as both handled their solos and duets with an appealing sense of style, but what carried us along was the sense of character and drama that the two brought to the roles.

The moment Madeline Boreham opened her mouth as the children's mother, Gertrud, in Act One you knew that this was a voice and personality to reckon with. There was no doubting this mother's power, yet also, her care and love. Boreham was finely partnered by Edward Kim as the children's father, Peter. Making his entrance on a bicycle, Kim made a strong, resonant and highly sympathetic Peter. Though the two roles are quite small, Boreham and Kim had the voices and the personalities to make them count.

The role of the witch is a relatively small one, particularly if, as here, she does not make an appearance during the prelude to Act Two when her music appears. But the role provides a god-send for singers with the right personality, and Ella de Jongh certainly brought that to bear. She grasped every opportunity the performance gave her, and her Gingerbread Witch was a real tour de force. Glamorous at first in a rather Marlene Dietrich way (blond wig and sparkly red dress), she was enticing yet scary and full of personality. When the children were securely fastened up, the transformation turned her into a Nazi officer. This hinted at suggestions in the dramaturgy not quite thought through, but de Jongh made the performance a real triumph.

Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Claudia Haussmann (Sandman) - Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance
Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel - Claudia Haussmann (Sandman) - Opera Holland Park

Claudia Haussmann's Sandman was a real fairy tale character, appearing in a bath boat with a sail that was the moon, plus two dream children in tow. Haussmann sang charmingly, with nice lightness of touch and great engagement. For whatever reason, Eleanor Broomfield's Dew Fairy was a show girl (or perhaps dancer from the Ballets Russes) arriving by bicycle, but Broomfield's performance transcended these questions, singing with delight.

The eight chorus members had a lot to do, singing at the end but acting and dancing throughout, forming the backbone of the evening in a way that was deftly done, never pulling focus. The children from Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School were admirable, some were involved in the acting and all were finely engaged.

In the pit, young artist conductor Charlotte Corderoy directed the City of London Sinfonia in a somewhat reduced version of Humperdinck's score. Yet there was never a feel of reduction, Corderoy drew rich textures from the orchestra, yet everything remained fluid and flowing, you forgot that there was a Wagnerian depth to the music; she and the City of London Sinfonia were warmly sympathetic partners to the singers.

I will be quite frank, I rather prefer my Hansel & Gretels rather darker and grittier, but Wilkie's production was always intelligent and engaging, and, as I have said, was never too cutesy. Within this Bence Kalo had drawn fine performances from the young singers, we simply forget that there was anything young artist about the evening and simply enjoyed a strong ensemble account of the opera that drew us in to the story and never let us leave.

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