To stand in the shadow of one’s parents is an experience many of us may have had, but when you happen to be playing the title roles in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel it is a particularly unfortunate one. Not that there was anything wrong with the performances of Catherine Hopper and Joana Seara in this production at Opera Holland Park, directed by Stephen Barlow.
As Hänsel, Hopper may not have captured the mannerisms of a ten-year old as skilfully as Angelika Kirchschlager in the Royal Opera House’s production last December, but she possessed her own sturdy, roguish boyishness. Similarly, Seara’s Gretel was filled to the brim with girlish glee, and there was something intriguing in the roundedness of her voice when the music allowed her to shine.
But the show was stolen by Donald Maxwell‘s Father whose very first ‘Tra-la-la-la’ (sung here from far off-stage) signalled what we were to be treated to vocally. With strong, comic gestures, he appeared first as a jolly, eternal optimist, and then as a man of action upon hearing that his children were in the dangerous wood. His rapport with Anne Mason’s Mother was also superb as he danced a jig and kissed her, whilst Mason was highly effective in ‘losing her rag’, before lamenting her tendency to go too far in the heat of the moment.
The production was, however, marred by a sticky concept. With the scenery consisting of just two screens set at a diagonal to each other, it felt like a weak attempt to create an expressionist set. Excepting some lighting alterations and the introduction of a few props (such as a huge Bahlsen chocolate bar to depict the gingerbread cottage), the stage remained bare and no scene changes occurred. As a result, even though the set stood ‘inside’ the one for OHP’s other current production, Roberto Devereux, the two children frequently failed to fill the space, and the final scene inside the witch’s cottage fell flat.
A World War Two concept was also juxtaposed awkwardly onto the production, with the Sandman (Katherine Allen) dressed as a German soldier and the Dew Fairy (Pippa Goss) as a field nurse. I am all for cutting edge productions, but, since the idea felt nonsensical, there was something slightly tasteless about seeing the freed children (played by the excellent New London Children’s Choir) walking on in gas masks, and standing over a pile of tiny shoes that all too easily recalled Auschwitz.
It was equally disappointing that not more was made of the fact that the Witch, dressed in a Dame Edna Everage-style glitzy green dress, was also played by Anne Mason. This may have been for practical reasons, but the opportunity could have been used to bring out the point that in the original fairytale both are as evil as each other.
More successful was the close of Act II when the children came on dressed as the fourteen angels who guard Hänsel and Gretel as they sleep, and, for some reason, as bowtied waddling penguins. On this occasion, the abundance of charm did successfully overshadow the question of ‘why?’.
Happily, the City of London Sinfonia, under the baton of Peter Selwyn, was as strong as ever. Smooth and flowing in the Overture, maintaining a gripping tempo when it was needed, and also indulging effectively in the more languid passages, it contributed to the fact that in this production the playing, the singing and the acting were all generally good. It was just a shame that the odd choice of concept meant that only moments, and not the production as a whole, thrilled.