sat 20/07/2024

Hansel and Gretel, RNCM, Manchester review – an urban dream | reviews, news & interviews

Hansel and Gretel, RNCM, Manchester review – an urban dream

Hansel and Gretel, RNCM, Manchester review – an urban dream

Beautiful singing, orchestral warmth and ingenious re-imagining of the fairytale opera

Beautiful singing and masterly movement: Rebecca Barry and Fiona Finsbury in the lead roles of Hansel and GretelRobert Workman

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is a ‘"fairytale opera" (its composer’s description), and yet one characteristic frequently commented on is its "Wagnerian" scoring. For this production, with David Pountney’s English translation, the RNCM used Derek Clark’s reduced orchestration.

Good idea, because the college has always been concerned that still-maturing voices should not be forced into trying to dominate massive orchestral sounds, and with that in mind has in recent years often provided surtitles for the audience to follow, even when the sung language was English. This time they didn’t do that, and I was concerned at first as to why. I think the answer may lie in the fact that Stephen Medcalf’s production – which has been created in collaboration with Grange Park Opera – doesn’t take the text particularly literally (though in spirit it’s spot-on). So it doesn’t actually matter too much whether you hear every word: the important thing is that you follow the parallel scenario. In the case of the cast I heard (there are two complete casts), Fiona Finsbury (Gretel), Rebecca Barry (Hansel) and Kimberley Raw (the Witch, pictured below) were excellent in diction, but the other principals had other virtues and all gave strong performances.

This urban reimagining has all the same sentimental warmth as the original

So what’s the story this time? Well, we’re in the 1890s, when the piece was written – no clever update of the children’s adventure into a cyberspace one, as in Opera North’s recent version – and the family are clearly poor and living in urban squalor. Dad’s still a drunk, and mum, if she hasn’t given up altogether, is struggling. When the kids are sent out to scrounge (which they do with all the professionalism of the Artful Dodger among the city crowds), they’re in a "forest" of gaslamps, and that’s where they say their prayer and drop off to sleep as darkness falls.

I wouldn’t have known it was meant to be Manchester if I hadn’t read the press release, but no matter: perhaps I should have realized that the name above the Witch’s little housey, here transformed into a sweets and pastry shop – Lecker – would be just right for one run by one of the many German émigrés in the Manchester of the late 19th century. Is the rest supposed to be a dream? Perhaps it is, as the Witch’s Konditorei, emerging from nowhere, transforms – and this really is a coup de théâtre – into a magnified version of the one-room home the children started off in (like in Cats, the larger-than-lifesize sets make you enter another world).

Designer Yannis Thavoris, who also did wonders for the RNCM’s Cendrillon last December, has created this masterly effect. The opera’s moral lesson, sung first by Gretel and finally by everyone, that "When in need or dark despair, God will always hear your prayer", is first seen as a sampler above the fireplace of the children’s home – which is of course a very good place for sober thoughts when red-hot danger lurks beneath...Kimberley Raw as the Witch in RNCM's Hansel and Gretel (credit Robert Workman) Thavoris also provides a small army of gaslamp lighters for the outdoor scene, with glimmering ends to their poles like glow-worms – and who later turn into guardian angels, as we see from woolly wings sewn on their backs. The Sandman is a strange and foreign-looking pipe-smoker (not sure where that leaves the fairy dust he provides to close children’s eyes for sleep), and the Dew Fairy is a morning milkman from "Dew Farm Dairy". True to the original, at the end the Witch is changed into a gingerbread biscuit from which all the unenchanted children can take a bite.

But this urban reimagining all has the same sentimental warmth as the original – and that is true of the re-orchestration, too. In the overture, Anthony Kraus unfolded its survey of the opera’s themes with dreamy richness and gradually pumped up the liveliness quotient so we knew it was all going to be OK in the end, and the RNCM Opera Orchestra played with refinement and beauty – a trifle thin and raucous in the tuttis, but that’s probably a result of the adaptation’s thinning the instrumentation down, anyway.

The principals all acquitted themselves well. I heard Eliza Boom as the Mother, Matthew Nuttall as the Father, Rhiain Taylor as the Sandman and Stephanie Poropat as the Dew Fairy – but I must particularly praise Fiona Finsbury and Rebecca Barry in the lead roles. They sang beautifully, had completely mastered some complicated choreography and movement (creative credit there to Bethan Rhys Wiliam), and characterised and enunciated like seasoned troupers. And, checking their CVs, which include the big roles in Cendrillon too, I guess they already are.

The Witch’s Konditorei transforms – in a coup de théâtre – into a magnified version of the one-room home the children started off in


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I came to watch the show on Saturday and agree wholehearted agree with your review. However I'm not sure if it is a mistake or not but you have omitted to mention Kimberley Raw, the soprano who played the principal role of the Witch. In my opinion and judging by the applause of the audience she was outstanding both vocally and dramatically.

Read again. Kimberley Raw is certainly mentioned (and pictured).

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