Director Stephen Barlow is a well-known figure on the London opera scene through his frequent collaboration with Opera Holland Park, but his new production of Hänsel und Gretel at the Britten Theatre marks his debut with the Royal College of Music. His interpretation of Humperdinck’s charming Märchenoper was striking in what it attempted – not wholly successfully – to achieve in partnership with designer Yannis Thavoris.

Sofie Lund-Tonnesen (Gretel) and Emma Roberts (Hänsel)
© RCM | Chris Christodoulou

The opera is updated to East Germany in the 1980s. The curtain opens on a faded GDR house with a portrait of Erich Honecker looming over the residents and all manner of uplifting Communist memorabilia on display. Gretel has come straight out of the Free German Youth group, her smart uniform and pigtailed locks a stark contrast to the rebellious Hänsel’s solidly casual attire. Banished by their long-suffering mother to hunt for strawberries, the pair are whisked away into Thavoris’ most serious visual moment, a forest of barbed wire in front of the Berlin Wall. As they doze off under the influence of an almost certainly illicit substance provided courtesy of a dubious Sandman, the Traumpantomime begins, video projections of East German and West German political history side by side on a split screen.

The third act sees the Dew Fairy – an aerobics devotee – emerge from a gap in the wall, before the children enter the ‘House of Confectionary’, here a glamorous and very Western chocolate shop overseen not by the usual mezzo-soprano Witch, but a gloriously camp tenor. Behind the glitter, a chain gang of children miserably work at a conveyor belt, the vehicle of this cruel capitalist chocolatier. There are some striking thoughts running through the production – the barren fridge and the struggle to feed a family behind the Wall, the wire before the Wall, the focus on illusion and reality. However, it seemed that the ideological consistency behind the first two acts wavered somewhat in service to sheer fun in the third. The chocolate shop on the other side of the Wall seemed to indicate a life worse than that in East Berlin and the climactic finish in which the two plucky East Berliners defeat the Witch and free the enslaved children comes to seem like a piece of GDR propaganda.

Lylis O'Hara (Mother) and Theo Perry (Father)
© RCM | Chris Christodoulou

Notwithstanding this slight gripe, it is a strong production and it benefits from Barlow’s controlled direction; his concept in no way obscures the fun at the heart of this piece and his depiction of the sibling relationship is particularly moving. On first night, we were given an excellent cast of young singers who provided a committed performance throughout. Sofie Lund-Tonnesen was a butter-wouldn’t-melt Gretel, showing off a big gleaming soprano with some solid high notes. She seemed secure in the higher register and the lower voice was supported; there’s potential for meaty Wagnerian roles in the future, though occasional dips in diction need a little attention to really round off her singing. Mezzo-soprano Emma Roberts gave us a spunky Hänsel in an assured performance; with her rebellious glint and mirthful expression, a Cherubino is surely in the offing. Roberts has an attractive mezzo with a touch of smoke to it, but there were moments when the voice seemed slightly overwhelmed; a little more projection will help to resolve this.

Sofie Lund-Tonnesen (Gretel), Emma Roberts (Hänsel) and Michael Bell (Witch)
© RCM | Chris Christodoulou

Lylis O’Hara’s steely soprano was ideally suited to Mother and she brought real pathos to the role. Theo Perry sang Father with a lyrical baritone and excellent articulation, showing a clear sense of awareness of the text. Sofia Kirwan-Baez and Clara Barbier Serrano made the most of their brief appearances as the Sandman and Dew Fairy respectively. As for The Witch, one can only say that should Michael Bell decide to abandon the opera house, he has a glittering alternative career as a drag queen available to him. Bell’s performance in the third act was a comic tour de force: from his antics with the chocolate tool to shamelessly breaking the fourth wall, not an element was out of place.

The ever-reliable Michael Rosewell drew a warm and well-paced performance from the RCM Orchestra. Humperdinck’s score is packed with solos and is demanding on all sections and the orchestra rose to the challenge. The score particularly exposes the brass and credit to that section for powering through despite struggling through some of the trickier moments. On the whole, a very rewarding evening.