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Hansel and Gretel (Susan Elkin reviews)

Hansel and Gretel – ★★★★
By Engelbert Humperdinck. Collaboration between Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and English National Opera.
society/company: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
performance date: 14 Jun 2019
venue: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre


Everyone knows the lullaby and that glorious tune permeates the score throughout like a Wagnerian leitmotif. Sung on press night by Rachel Kelly and Susanna Hurrell in the titles roles, it didn’t quite have the magic of the iconic Kathleen Ferrier/Isobel Baillie recording but was nonetheless a nicely sung high spot. But there’s a great deal more to Engelbert Humperdink’s most famous opera than a single number.

Premiered in 1893 and evolved from songs written to complement a play by the composer’s sister, Adelheid Wette, this take onHansel and Gretel tones down some of the horror of the early versions the brothers Grimm discovered and retold. We still get a cannibalistic witch (Alasdair Elliott on press night) but the children’s parents (Rosie Aldridge and Duncan Rock on press night) are basically caring, if a bit stressed and strapped for cash.

Director Timothy Sheader has developed some interesting and attractive ideas for this production. Broomsticks, for example, become symbolic. The father is a broom maker, there’s an ensemble which, dressed in drab clothes carry on long broomsticks and create a menacing forest with them. Hansel is en-caged with one and another is used to tip the witch into the oven. Sheader also has fun with the children’s dream at the end of Act 2. It’s meant to be angels but he brings the whole ensemble on as white uniformed, blonde, old fashioned air crew and the children dream of flying away. It’s a bit over-egged but quite amusing.

There is also an utterly delightful children’s ensemble – excellent acting and pretty good singing who are part of Pimlico Musical Foundation. They delight during the overture and again during a rather moving finale.

Separated by a a black gauze curtain but visible behind the stage are twenty members of ENO orchestra playing Derek J Clark’s very neat reduction of the score under Ben Glassberg’s baton. I loved the moment when in Act 3 Hurrell sings wistfully and wonderingly about the dream she’s just had with a beautiful solo violin continuo

The transition to the wood and the witch’s cottage sits musically and theatrically somewhere between arriving in the Land of Sweets in The Nutcracker and getting to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting makes the house gleam in tantalising Licorice Allsort colours and Peter McKintosh’s set makes good use of the revolve to take us from the children’s home to the horrors of the wood and the witch’s house.

It’s a family friendly opera full of memorable tunes and lovely moments which sits very happily in the open air with real trees, birds and natural light to add atmosphere. But if there’s a real star in this show its David Pountney’s translation which is witty and direct. “That rotten skink has come home drunk” sings Rosie Aldridge in Act 1. And some of the rhymes are worthy of WS Gilbert: “Come I invite you into the cave of Aladdin; A place a child could go mad in!” and “Grease the pans and mix the batter. Bring out every dish and platter.”

 First published by Sardines:
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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