In the dark forest, the wind moans through the beech trees whilst two terrified children huddle together; suddenly, as though on cue, the heavens open and rain turns the opera pavilion’s set into part of the wider landscape – an experience perhaps unique to Garsington, and maybe one you won’t have at other performances, but what you will see is a brilliantly conceived, superbly sung production which is easily the best thing this house has done.
The stage is dominated by those stark beeches, surrounding an open book whose pages are turned to reveal pop-ups, firstly the family’s bleak, colourless home, and subsequently the tangibly delicious riot of colour that is the witch’s domain. Black-clad, white-faced figures glide amongst the trees, providing either menacing or consoling nuances as well as facilitating seamless set changes – sometimes they brood above the singers in the manner of the trench coated angels in Wings of Desire, sometimes they don disturbing full head masks some of which recall Magritte’s Good Angels – but always, they give a sense of otherworldliness to this familiar tale, one which lingers long after the evening has passed.
Olivia Fuchs has clearly been influenced by Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment in her concept of fear as a necessary and educative experience, and Niki Turner’s designs, with their gradual passage from grey, black and white tones to pink, bright green and chocolate, subtly reveal the siblings’ rite of passage, from fearing their parents’ wrath and squabbling amongst themselves, to helping each other to outwit the witch and free the imprisoned children. It’s rare to find a production in which the direction, sets, costumes and lighting work together so intimately to achieve so rounded a final work; the costumes alone, from the splendid extravaganza of the witch’s dress to the minutely characterized gingerbread children, deserve an award.
Such a strong production needs first rate singers, and there was not one weakness in the cast. Claudia Huckle has a truly beautiful contralto voice, exceptionally opulent and even throughout the range, and her Hänsel was the most credible I’ve seen; it helps that she’s elfin and looks about twelve, but it was her lively, engaging acting which made her character rounded. She will sing the title part in the Glyndebourne Tour’s Rape of Lucretia – definitely one to see. Anna Devin’s Gretel succeeded in never once inducing a cringe – quite an achievement – and her singing was fresh, youthful and lyrical.
They were supported by an exceptional cast, finely characterized by this imaginative and sensitive director; I cannot imagine William Dazeley’s drunken, loutish yet pitiable father, Yvonne Howard’s put-upon yet still lovable mother and Susan Bickley’s gloriously over-the-top Witch being bettered. Rhiannon Llewelyn was a sweet-toned Sandman, the bringer of nightmares rather than dreams in this version, and Ruth Jenkins a clear-voiced Dew Fairy. The children, from Trinity Boys’ Choir and the Old Palace School, were absolutely superb; they had been costumed and directed to represent a kind of cross-section of both urchins and faeries, and the overall effect was not unlike the motley prisoners in Peter Hall’s unforgettable Fidelio – high praise indeed.
Martin André brought his vast experience to the pit, and the superb Garsington Orchestra played Humperdinck’s inspiring, poetic music with exactly the right combination of romantic sweep and brooding menace. A wonderful evening – just six performances left, and maybe yours will be the one where nature once more conspires with the director to induce that rare ‘Wow’ moment of wonder. If you are not lucky enough to be able to get to Wormsley, but you are fortunate enough to live near to Skegness, you’ll be able to see it relayed to the huge screen on Central Beach, at 14.00 on Sunday July 7th. Part of the ‘SO Festival,’ this screening is free, open to all and families are positively encouraged – go on, bring a picnic and hope for some serious weather – rain or shine, it won’t matter with this Hänsel und Gretel, as the whole thing is magic whatever the climate brings.