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Hänsel and Gretel at Jacksons Lane | Review

Hampstead Garden Opera (HGO), which is staging this production, aims to “provide unique opportunities for young singers – the professionals of the future – to perform in a theatre…roles which, early in their careers, they would not be given in the big opera companies”. That this policy is successful is evident by the high standard of singing and acting in their current production at the intimate Jackson’s Lane Theatre (opposite Highgate Tube Station).

HGO's Hansel and Gretel. ©2023Laurent Compagnon
HGO’s Hänsel and Gretel. ©2023 Laurent Compagnon.

Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) specialised in composing post-Wagnerian style operas for young people, Hänsel and Gretel (1893) being by far his most successful, as it is based on the well-known Brothers Grimm fairy tale, where a mother, at her wits’ end, sends her children out into the woods to collect strawberries where they come across a witch who cooks children into gingerbread people!

As brother and sister Hänsel and Gretel, Rozanna Madylus and Beren Fidan are a great double act and very believable in role. Madylus’ facial expressions are a continual delight and the two spar off each other with great glee – I have seen the opera many times, and have never seen these roles in better hands! They get the innocence of youth beautifully and are always watchable.

As Peter, their father, Armand Rabot exhibits a powerful bass-baritone throughout the compass of the voice, clearly enjoying his role, even if he has little to do after the opening scene.

Once the children have reached the depths of the wood they fall asleep and are looked after by The Sandman, a minor role but superbly sung by Kitty Casey. In many ‘pro-am’ opera companies, and in fully professional ones, secondary roles are too often given to less able performers, but not here. This production is clearly cast from strength, and the same applies to Cerys Macallister as the Dew Fairy.

Sophie Patterson sings the dual roles of Gertrud, the mother and the ‘Knusperhexe’ or ‘Nibble Witch’, these days often given to a male singer. There is also a children’s chorus of ‘Kuechenkinder’ or, as we would call them, Gingerbread Children, all of whom succeed in singing the opera in German, with surtitles (courtesy of Glyndebourne) displayed high above the stage.

The staging presents problems not fully solved. The director (Jeanne Pansard-Besson) places the orchestra of thirteen (arranger Jonathan Lyness) upstage of the action, constantly in view, and the athletic conducting of Thomas Payne standing centre stage is often quite distracting! All major entrances have to be made down wooden stairs either side of the audience which, as The Sandman discovered, is impossible to do quietly wearing shoes with solid heels! The simple sets (Michelle Bradbury), consisting mainly of cardboard boxes, are quite effective, especially when lit as imaginatively as they are here by Sofia Alexiadou.

The opera contains many passages for orchestra alone and the director has chosen to use mime sequences during these which do become rather repetitive – especially for the young people in the audience, who were already perhaps having a few problems hearing the work in German and trying to read the surtitles in English at the same time! But, one goes to the opera to hear singers, and when one hears young singers as good as HGO have gathered together for Hänsel and Gretel it is well worth braving the vagaries of the Northern Line!

4 stars

Review by John Groves

Hampstead Garden Opera (HGO), north London’s award-winning opera company, presents a fully-staged production, with orchestra and fabulous young opera singers and children, of Humperdinck’s timeless and enchanting fairy tale opera.
When Mother sends out the naughty Hänsel and Gretel to gather berries in the woods, the wicked Nibble-Witch somehow slips her mind. Fortunately, the care of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, and the children’s own ingenuity, enable them to survive the woods, overthrow the Witch and free the children she has changed to gingerbread…..

Sung in the original German, with full English surtitles. HGO is delighted to have as production director Jeanne Pansard-Besson, and as music director Thomas Payne. As always our casts are tomorrow’s opera stars, and we are thrilled to have local children as the chorus of Gingerbread Children.

The production is suitable for all ages.

11th – 19th November 2023
https://www.jacksonslane.org.uk/

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Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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