“In spite of all that was missing, the work remains a sequence of irresistible tunes, heroically produced”
In taking modest versions of great operas to pubs, barns and disused factories, companies such as Pop-Up Opera provide a surprising percentage of the country’s operatic performances each year. Their stated mission is to find new audiences for opera, which opera could well do with, judging by some critics’ sniffy reviews of the format. But although this shoestring version of Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen, itself already a shoestring version of the real thing, deserves support and encouragement, it is easy to see their dilemma.
Brook’s original adaptation uses a small orchestra. Pop-Up Opera’s solo piano is an obvious budget choice but there is no way it can make up for the richly expressive textures of the music. One instrument, for example a flute, would add colour and spirit to the evening, especially during the vocal breaks when the piano fails to take the emotional reins. Musical director, Berrak Dyer does an excellent job of the transcription, but castanets and distant bugles can’t easily be produced by the same instrument.
Chloe Latchmore’s warm mezzo tones fill the Asylum as she seduces Don José. We miss a gypsy vitality in both her on-stage movement and in her dynamic range, which, in some places, could come down in volume to allow for dramatic growth. We enjoy a more nuanced rendering by Satriya Krisna as José and James Corrigan’s Escamillo has a dramatic presence despite his baritone voice being overshadowed by the piano and other members of the cast. Soprano, Alice Privett, shines as Micaëla, singing with sensibility and passion.
The portable element of the set is clearly a ‘must’ for the company, who are constantly changing venues, but it demands great resourcefulness of Director John Wilkie. The choice of a draughty but aesthetically pleasing church in Peckham is perfect in principle, but aside from acoustically it’s not really used. The soaring and plummeting emotions are coaxed out on a tiny stage, in front of a small projector screen which is shared by Harry Percival’s English captions, looped scenes from the Spanish civil war and creative use of shadow puppetry. Lighting is desultory; small spotlights on stands fiercely illuminate the performers’ faces from a low angle limiting their expressiveness, which, in a production already bereft of chorus, orchestra and scenery, seems harsh on all present.
In spite of all that was missing, the work remains a sequence of irresistible tunes, heroically produced.
“The intimacy of the setting pulled the audience into the story as the music wove it’s magic”
It was nearly two hundred years ago when The Brothers Grimm published their collection of stories, which we know as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Hansel and Gretel is one of the best known of these tales and Humperdinck’s music perfectly enhances the story of two children lost in the woods and their encounter with the archetypal wicked witch. I had forgotten that it is also a story about a family and their struggles. The opera was composed by Humperdinck between 1891 and 1892, and he intended it to appeal to both children and adults. This production succeeds in that intention as it is certainly appropriate and enjoyable for a wide audience.
This is opera for everyone, in the best possible way. It is quite an experience being so close to the singers, one even sat next to me for a while! The intimacy of the setting pulled the audience into the story as the music wove it’s magic, and catching glimpses of old toys in the display cabinets created a feeling of being in a forest made of children’s dreams.
The singers are also excellent actors, so please forget the stereotype of large static opera singers declaiming. Polly Leech and Sofia Larsson are captivating and utterly believable as Hansel and Gretel. Hansel’s bravado in the forest, joy with the sweets, many of which Leech manages to eat, and quivering terror in the witch’s house are by turns hilarious and affecting. Gretel’s playfulness and courage are beautifully brought to life by Larsson, and when the children joined their voices in a prayer to the angels before falling asleep in the forest it was genuinely touching. It is a beautiful duet.
Ailsa Mainwaring plays both the mother and the witch, and clearly relishes both roles. She has great emotional range, moving from anger and exasperation with her children and husband, through concern for Hansel and Gretel and, later, becoming the wicked witch. Her voice is powerful and flexible, with a warm mezzo tone, and great clarity in the higher range. She is very funny as the witch, enjoying her evil scheming and practically slavering as she contemplates eating Hansel.
The cast is completed by James Harrison as the father and Rebecca Moon, who plays the Sandman and the Dewfairy. Moon does not have a lot to do, but she does it with great charm. She sends the children off to sleep with a gentle lightness and reappears later as the chirpy fairy, bringing a fizzy energy to the stage. Harrison has a rich baritone that complements and balances the female voices. This is particularly the case during the lovely quartet at the end, which I wanted to go on for longer! He also has good comic timing and was hugely entertaining when the father came home drunk.
Sung in the original German with inventive captions this is an accessible and big hearted production. Purists may object to the captions, which add a great deal of humour by bringing a rather loose translation at times. I loved them! They give the story a contemporary zing, ‘what bloody time do you call this?’ says the mother when her husband rolls in with a can of beer in his hand. ‘We’ll never win Strictly at this rate,’ says Gretel when Hansel can’t pick up the dance moves. And my favourite, near the end, when the father tells the children to always do what their mother tells them or they will end up being eaten my a witch who looks just like her!
If you think you don’t like opera, if you have never seen an opera, why not try it, and make this the one you see first. I had the music going round in my head on the way home, and that’s always the sign of a good tune. Opera at it’s best is an amazing combination of music and drama and Pop up Opera have both in spades. I will be going to more of their productions and I hope you will too.
Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Robert Workman
HUMPERDINCK’S HÄNSEL AND GRETEL
is touring various venues until 19th November – click on logo below for full details