Hansel and Gretel, Humperdinck’s tuneful opera with its folk music themes was a good choice for the last opera of this academic year from the Opera School at the RSAMD in Glasgow.
From the vignette on stage during the overture to Hansel and Gretel, it was very clear that we were in a very different place to the rural village next to the forest as famously told by the brothers Grimm. “Children Missing” read the newspaper headlines, and indeed before our eyes, a pair of children were led off into the dark by a strange man with a bag of sweets. Director William Relton set the opera on a modern day housing estate, which by and large works: although Hansel and Gretel dance together, they also play video games. There is, as the well-known tale has it, little food, and their mother slumps in front of her TV after sending the pair out to gather strawberries following a row over a broken milk jug. The ground beyond the estate was not a forest in the fairy-tale sense as it was littered with broken pallets, a discarded supermarket trolley but with a few trees, atmospherically lit by Grant Anderson. The two children became lost and the cuckoo scene with echo chorus built the tension nicely.
There were some clever modern day touches, as grungy down and outs appeared, congregated round a soup kitchen, and became the children’s guardians for the night, sent off to sleep by Jessica Leary’s Sandman. The soup kitchen van later folded out to become the witch’s house, and Hansel was locked up in a discarded industrial cage.
While there is no problem with a particularly dark take on this dark tale, the happy-ever-after ending could in this instance perhaps have been tempered slightly given the modern setting with an increasingly secular world around us: the children were returning to very poor circumstances after all.
The opera was double cast for Hansel, Gretel, Father and the Witch, and on the opening night Lucinda Stuart-Grant’s convincingly boyish Hansel and Natalie Montakhab’s sweetly sung Gretel carried the story well. Nicholas Morris was in lovely voice as the Father, and Jackob Holze Johansen gave us an amusing performance as the (male) witch, complete with broomstick and in high heels. (The other cast has a female witch.)
This opera, sung in German with English supertitles, was a wonderful showcase, not only for the young singers at the opera school, but also for the very impressive band of players in the pit, as well as teams of backstage stage technicians, electricians, carpenters, scenic artists and costume makers, all learning their craft in the most practical way. Head of Opera and conductor, Timothy Dean has good reason be proud of them all.
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