Sunday 19 March 2017

Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel (Belfast, 2017)

Engelbert Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel

Opera North, 2017

Christoph Altstaedt, Edward Dick, Katie Bray, Fflur Wyn, Susan Bullock, Stephen Gadd, Rachel J Mosley, Amy Freston

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 15th March 2017

One of the advantages of a fairy-tale is that it can operate on multiple levels, ideally with some measure of realism or a moral lying behind the magic fantasy of its telling. Opera is an artform that is particularly good at operating on multiple levels and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel is one of the greatest examples of a fairy tale opera that strikes a near perfect balance in how it touches on all those important levels in its musical, storytelling and - most importantly - its magical qualities. It wasn't dubbed 'Wagner for Children' for nothing, but it would be a shame to over-emphasise either the Wagnerian or the children's magic fairy-tale elements of the work. Opera North's terrific production uses stage-craft to place the right kind of emphasis on the material, and the musical performance is quite impressive too.

It's perhaps more important to get that balance of tone right in Hansel and Gretel than in most other fairy tale operas, as there are some quite dark elements in it that relate to child abuse and child abduction. It's not the kind of fairy-tale however that you would think could bear a brutal reworking of those dark origins in the style of Martin Kušej's interpretation of Dvořák's Ruslaka, but Stefan Herheim's colourful deconstruction of the same work shows that it is possible to make the escapist fantasy work hand in hand with the less than pleasant reality in a way that enhances its meaning and message. Director Edward Dick and set designer Giles Cadle might not have the same kind of budget that Herheim might have at La Monnaie, but what they achieve with this Opera North production of Hansel and Gretel is no less imaginative and just as probing of the story's depths.

There's just a glimmer of suspicion however that two poor children living in a hovel with neglectful alcoholic parents probably wouldn't have a high-definition video camera to capture their play and games, but Hansel and Gretel running around with a hand-held camera is more of a device that allows the audience to see the world through a child's eyes. And my goodness do they ever go for it, the playful footage projected in real time to the back of the stage, a masterstroke that draws you into Hansel and Gretel's games and their imagination. The starving children are not going to be aware of the poverty of their situation or understand that their treatment amounts to abuse and neglect, their minds being more likely to transform it into something more relatable like a game. The brilliance of the stage craft allows us to share this, and that's real magic.

The two worlds, the imaginary play world of the children and the stark reality of the world of the adults, are brilliantly delineated in Humperdinck's score and in the libretto, with the music and the language notably harsher when their parents are speaking. The distinction is brought out to perfection in the translation, choosing the right words to make you wince a little without it being too offensive or brutal. Folk music performs the same function as the fairy tale - and it's no coincidence that Humperdinck's score like many fairy-tale operas (Rusalka, The Cunning Little Vixen) relies on folk music to similarly transform a harsher reality into something more endurable without denying the reality of the circumstances they arise from.

The transformative nature of the fairy tale is brought out superbly in many clever little touches, placing the magic firmly within the minds of the ones most capable of it - the children. Instead of running out into a dark fairy tale wood then, Hansel and Gretel create their own enchanted forest out their home using hairbrushes and twigs enlarged to extraordinary effect by the handheld camera and its harsh lighting. The horror of what lies in store for them isn't necessarily outside, it's there within the walls of their house and it can be confronted only with the power of their own instinct for survival and quick-wittedness.

Perfectly matching the tone of the approach, the most wonderful display of this magic occurs just before the interval in the guise of the dream of the Fourteen Angels. Rather than the traditional fairy tale imagery as the children fall under the spell of the Sandman, the director Edward Dick comes up with a wonderful little movie interlude that is a rather more down-to-earth childhood dream of a perfect day at the seaside. In this little dream-movie the children experience all the joy, protection and happiness that is missing from their lives; candyfloss and ice-cream, sun and sand, love and laughter, a kind grandmother to give them everything that they don't experience with their own parents. It's a joyous little moment that connects the reality with the magic of imagination and the ability of the children to endure and rise above their circumstances.

There is no less careful attention to detail in the second and usually more overtly fairy-tale half of the opera. The edible gingerbread house is again just a clever camera shot - a view of the inside of the fridge packed with cakes and sweets blown up in projection to cover the walls and ceiling. But not everything relies on the cleverness of the production design to make the content of the second half work as well as it does. It's the delightful performances and playful interaction of Katie Bray and Fflur Wyn's Hansel and Gretel with Susan Bullock's swaggering witch that manage to strike that fine balance between the reality of the horror of the abusive captivity and neglect and the means of surviving it. Opera North's production doesn't frighten the children, except maybe in a good way.

It's probably the final scene that takes the most liberty with the libretto and yet at the same time it most perfectly represents the intent or moral of the tale. The fairy-tale has become a story that the older Hansel and Gretel tell to their own children, and it's their own children - the children who come alive when the witch dies - who exist now because Hansel and Gretel have endured, grown and strengthened to overcome the adversity of their experiences. The fairy-tale story is not entirely escapism then, but it is also a means that they can communicate these important values to their own children. It's a terrific way to acknowledge that Wagnerian side of the importance of myth and storytelling as vital to the development of cultural ideals. Even Hansel and Gretel's parents are reformed characters here.

The brilliance of the production - clever and charming, an absolute delight in every way - is matched by the equally warm and sensitive musical account and outstanding singing performances. I was already aware of the beautiful brightness and lyricism of Fflur Wyn's singing and couldn't have been more delighted to see her cast as Gretel. She didn't disappoint giving a heartfelt, engaging and playful performance, as did Katie Bray's boisterous Hansel. Bray's response to the witches's command to 'show me your finger' got perhaps the loudest laugh of the night, but this was also a beautifully sung performance that was perfectly complementary in a way that truly demonstrated the Wagnerian sophistication of Humperdinck's musical composition.

Simply due to the apportioning of the roles and the way the two principal roles were sung, it's fair to say that a large measure of the success of the production rode on the performances of Katie Bray and Fflur Wyn, but there was much to enjoy in Susan Bullock's scene stealing Witch. Her Gertrud sounded a little over-stretched at first, but she really warmed to the Witch role in the second half, and utterly mesmerized/horrified the young children in the row in front of me. You really need a personality like that to carry this off, and Bullock was terrific. To have Stephen Gadd there as well as the Father is another bonus. As good as all these production and singing elements were, it was the musical performance under Christoph Altstaedt's direction that was really outstanding, capturing all the folk swing of the songs, the bright playfulness and the sinister darkness, but more importantly with a contemplative sensitivity that is essential to carry off the ending attempted in this production. Opera North have really outdone themselves here.

Links: Opera North