Gale force winds were battering the Irish capital, but inside the Abbey Theatre, we were warmed by a humorous take on Humperdinck’s classic opera Hansel and Gretel co-produced by Irish National Opera, Theatre Lovett and Abbey Theatre. From the outset, there were challenges. The Abbey Theatre is not designed for opera – it lacks an orchestral pit. Co-directors Muireann Ahern and Louis Lovett of Theatre Lovett had never directed opera before; but through the clever use of space, the creative vision of Ahern and Lovett and the guiding hand of conductor and arranger of this English version of the opera, Richard Peirson, this made for an entertaining and generally convincing interpretation of this warhorse.

Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Gretel) and Raphaela Mangan (Hansel)
© Patrick Redmond

Updated from the medieval German forest setting, Ahern and Lovett set the opera in an early 20th-century hotel called The Forest Edge Hotel. While this was an intriguing premise it nonetheless did raise certain pertinent questions that were unanswered by this production: if a family can afford to stay in a hotel, even one as shabby as this one, why are they starving? If the children are left there all day by their parents, why does the hotel porter (more of whom later) not even give them a glass of milk to drink? How big is the hotel that they can get lost in it for a day? Why would a father (unless delusional) consider that witches lurk in the bar and lounge of a hotel? Ahern and Lovett were afraid the "traditional forest setting would be twee"; they obviously had no fear of striking the bizarre note. Leaving these reservations aside though, the idea did largely work with its whiff of eeriness like the hotel in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

There was an edgy vibe to designer, Jamie Vartan’s hotel with its cheap, garish neon lights that flickered and changed colour depending on the drama taking place. The old cast-iron lift with its caged door doubled nicely as the witch’s oven while the basement where the children become lost in, becomes the forest edge, an idea clearly brought out by the neon lights highlighting this in the name. Given the lack of orchestral pit, Vartan cleverly incorporated the six musicians on stage. Costumes were simple and effective: some tawdry, donkey grey children’s clothes for Hansel and Gretel; a black hat and skirt for the witch that was effectively transformed into brilliant white chef’s outfit when she was preparing to roast the children in the kitchen. The production uses a judicious amount of video design (Jack Phelan) in announcing events or projecting skies though there were some technological difficulties in the first half.

Raymond Keane (Night Watchman), Raphaela Mangan, Miriam Murphy, Ben McAteer, Amy Ní Fhearraigh
© Patrick Redmond

Both the singing and acting was of a consistently high standard. Mezzo Raphaela Mangan made for an excellent Hansel, a mix of boyish greed and bravado. Amy Ní Fhearraigh, noticeably taller than Mangan, acted her part superbly. Her silky tones entwined beautifully with that of Mangan in the Evening Prayer. Both Ben McAteer and Miriam Murphy made much of their roles, Murphy possessing impeccable comic timing. Her hasty return for her chicken nuggets and her quarter pounder burger before searching for her children was as hilarious as it was anachronistic.

Carolyn Dobbin’s witch emphasised the fun over the sinister with brilliant comic effect. Coy and coquettish, she sang mincingly of roast child. With a knowing wink to the audience, she spread kerosene on the fire before taking a sly slug herself. Emma Nash sang beautifully as the Sandman/Dew fairy her clear soprano voice projecting well. There was perfect comic timing in her slightly drunk opening to Act 3. The night watchman/porter was acted superbly by Raymond Keane and while he spoke not one word, he communicated clearly and humorously through mime throughout.

Amelie Metcalfe and Ronan Millar (Yellow Coats, The Lost Children), Raymond Keane (Night Watchman)
© Patrick Redmond

Huge credit goes to Richard Peirson who conducted from the piano throughout. Making a fine job of a difficult piano reduction, he got the best out of the six musicians who played with such energy and commitment that belied their numbers. Nonetheless there was no disguising the thinness of sound, the lack of sonorous, sumptuous tones that come from an entire orchestra that is demanded in this Wagner-influenced score.

Lastly, kudos to the children of the RTÉ Cór na nÓg who were pre-recorded, and sang their song of thanksgiving at being rescued from the clutches of the witch. The child-actors Ronan Millar and Amelie Metcalfe looked every inch the part of the young Hansel and Gretel.