Video Hansel and Gretel

5 Mar

Opera North’s third fairy tale opera of their spring season is Hansel and Gretel I caught it at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 4th March.

I’m not a great fan of Hansel and Gretel.  The music’s sumptuous but it does feel awfully heavy for the fairy tale and also for the very simple text.  These days, particularly, people tend to impose a layer of social commentary on to it as well and I’m not sure that the piece really bears it.  I’ve never got the idea that it provides a profoundly moving experience.

I had some sympathy with a woman in the audience who complained that she wanted a traditional production.  I have never seen one and it made me think that one of the problems opera faces is the lack of productions like, say, the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker which some audiences want to see because they provide a fantastic entertainment. There’s a place for those heavy with social commentary, but maybe you don’t want to see them that often.

Anyway, Edward Dick’s production set the piece firmly in modern day Britain.  Hansel and Gretel live in a tower block on a council estate. Their parents put together cheap, pound-shop type goods.  They still have a video camera and spend most of the first scene filming each other – projected on the wall at the back.  Instead of dashing out to find strawberries, they sneak off to their bedroom and, once the parents have gone, return and use the plastic Christmas trees and other goods to create a forest, again projected on the wall, looking very convincing.  The Sandman is a Mrs Doubtfire-like woman who brings a huge teddy bear for them to sleep with.  The angel sequence is of her taking them on a trip to the seaside where they guzzle food and do all the things children like to do there.

They wake up to find the fridge full of food – projected onto the walls.  The witch uses an egg whisk to cast her spell.  After the oven explodes, the curtain drops and rises again to the flat decorated for Christmas and the children there.  Apart from the that curtain drop, you couldn’t fault the technical ingenuity and ability to find solutions to the challenges of a single set.

And yet, the more I think about it, the less satisfactory it seems or at least the less clear it was.  Were the children making some sort of video of the story?  How far was it fantasy and how far intended to be reality.  Dick created the poverty and the sheer desperation of the first act really well and then, for me, failed to carry it through.  How did the leap to the Christmas celebrations happen?  The witch’s magic doesn’t sit that well with the modern setting.  What was there to frighten them about in the “forest”.  The very rural fear of the forest doesn’t translate to an inner city – or didn’t here.  I thought there were just too many loose ends.  Maybe he needed a different translation (David Pountney’s very decent one was used).

The cast was good and did the roles so well that they almost hid the problems with the overall conception.  Fflur Wyn was a fine, bossy Gretel.  Katie Bray a really convincing, boyish Hansel – acting absolutely superbly and looking like a ten-year old.  Both sang nicely, though towards the end you realised what a heavy sing these roles are.

Susan Bullock doubled Mother and Witch and was great as both, catching the Mother’s desperation and nailing the mixture of the comic and sinister as the witch to perfection.  Stephen Gadd was Father – strong singing, fine acting.  You believed in this couple.  Sandman and Dew Fairy struck me as both being a bit under-cast.

Justin Doyle conducted at this performance.  He caught the counterpoint, the symphonic structure of the music and, mostly, didn’t drown the singers.  The orchestra played pretty well for him.

So, for me, this was the least satisfactory of the three evenings.  It still showed Opera North’s enquiring ingenuity and there was a lot to enjoy but I’ve still to be convinced that there’s a way of really making this opera work on a higher level than as a simple fairy tale.

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