Perhaps I should whisper it as softly as Gretel’s “Hocus Pocus”, but I’ve never fallen under the spell of Hansel and Gretel, and it’s not (just) because I have a heart of stone. For one thing, I don’t buy this line of Humperdinck as the great Wagnerian disciple. Sure, there’s some lovely orchestration, and those divided horns in the prelude are delightful, but assisting at the Parsifal premiere does not a Wagnerian make, and there’s a superficiality to the music that I’ve never been able to make my peace with.

Rhian Lois (Gretel) and Kitty Whately (Hansel)
© James Glossop

Then there are the production issues: does a director go all-out to be kid-friendly, thus making the tale even more sugary sweet than it already is, or do they try and engage the adults by tapping into the tale’s darker side, even though it’s all but ignored by the composer? Neither side in unproblematic, and that’s before you add in the fact that the sight of two adults pretending to be children can be hit and miss at best.

One place where this Scottish Opera film works is that Hansel and Gretel are played by two young singers who can just about get away with all the childlike naivety in the acting. Rhian Lois, the best thing about the company’s La bohème last autumn, is a gentle, sweet-voiced Gretel, while Kitty Whately’s tomboy Hansel is well contrasted, vocally as well as physically. Gretel plays with her toys while Hansel bounds around with a broom, and Whately’s vocal energy is apparent even when she is in the witch’s cage.

Or, in this case, the witch’s shopping trolley. Director Daisy Evans has to take account of the social distancing regulations that we all now take for granted, and so there’s a compulsory two metre distance between the singers at all times. It could have been a lot worse, however: this film was made on 19th December 2020, just before our current, much stricter lockdown was announced. Only a few hours’ difference would have made this performance impossible and, when you take that into consideration, it makes some bizarre stage blocking completely forgivable.

Kitty Whately (Hansel) and Rhian Lois (Gretel)
© James Glossop

As it stands, Evans has done a pretty good job with the difficult hand that she was dealt. The stage of Glasgow’s Theatre Royal is extended and atmospherically lit for the singers, while the orchestra play behind them in their perspex boxes. The body language of the children is convincing, as is the poverty-driven distraction of their parents: their alcoholic father comes in swigging Tennent’s from a carrier bag, a very Scottish touch! The forest is suggested through subtle lighting and the witch’s lair is a shopping trolley full of treats rather than a gingerbread house. The problem of the oven is overcome with some rather jolly stage touches, making up for the fact that the Dream Pantomime is flat. There is a strong Christmas theme to the visuals, however, which makes me wonder why Scottish Opera didn’t time the release for December instead of its Così fan tutte.

Nadine Benjamin (Witch)
© James Glossop

For all the character of the children’s performances, they are roundly upstaged by Nadine Benjamin, doubling as the distressed mother and the hysterical witch. I usually find the witch’s endless cookery tips tedious, but Benjamin injects them with plenty of vim, and she is matched with a beautifully sung father in Phillip Rhodes. Both here make their company debuts, and I hope we see them both again soon. Charlie Drummond has great fun doubling as the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, and she looks as characterful as she sounds.

The masked orchestra play the score in a reduced arrangement by Derek Clark, Scottish Opera’s Head of Music: it’s a compliment to him that I barely noticed the difference. They sound great, particularly in the wind and brass lines, and David Parry conducts with all the steadiness and security that you would expect from someone of his experience.

So I’m prepared to put aside my stony heart and welcome this high quality Hansel in the name of cheering us all up at a tricky time. There’s a magic that even I yearn for, however: the days when we will no longer have to comment on singers staying two metres apart, or even the unheard of luxury of an audience being physically present in the same room as a performance! I’ll believe that magic when it arrives, but let’s all hope that we’re getting there.


This performance was reviewed from the Scottish Opera video stream

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