Photo credit: Opera Holland Park (c) Ali Wright
Opera Holland Park (OHP) is rightly proud of its Young Artists (YA) scheme, now some thirteen-years-old. It boasts superb alumni who grace the stage of its summer season in principal roles as well as other major houses in the UK and abroad. Just last month, soprano and former YA Alison Langer impressed in OHP’s new production of “Rigoletto.”
This was an excellent way, then, to whet the appetite for her performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel,” in a new production by John Wilkie. At OHP, the Young Artists comprise not just the principal roles, but also give conductor Charlotte Corderoy, director Bence Kalo and repetiteur Avishka Edirisinghe, a chance to shine in preparing music and blocking too. They also get to perform in a school’s matinee.
Missing the Mark
Designs by Neil Irish make relatively spare use of the imposing space, with its apron in front of the orchestra reserved for the enchanted sleep that closes Act two. The forest is rendered relatively abstractly by white columns, some veering at an angle, and dappled by light suggesting trees. The overall impression is naturalistic with a dreamlike twist, blending the mundane and the more magical. The paraphernalia of everyday life are superimposed on the dreamy world of the story, the Sandman arrives in a tin bathtub, the parents cycle in and out on bicycles in convincingly run-down costume and with slightly grubby 1930s furnishings for their home. The Witch’s minions are little automata, like something out of Fritz Lang, puppets (perhaps) of late industrial capitalism.
The Gingerbread house itself is designed like a couture chocolate box, the sort you might get in Burlington Arcade. It gives the show a visual shot in the arm, in the second half, assisted by bold lighting from Robert Price. The Witch enters in a glittering haute bourgeois floor-length red dress before suddenly transforming into a Hermann Göring pastiche and goose-stepping about the place. It’s a puzzling visual and physical sugar rush, but stimulating, nonetheless. Even if the trail of thematic breadcrumbs feels a bit meager.
Ultimately, it could do with fleshing out if the ideas are to really register. There is something there about the folk imagination of an impoverished Germany, dovetailing with the twisted psyche of Fascism. Its own fantasies of excess, domesticity, and plenitude. The overture gives us a dumb-show in which the children curl up to read their Grimm fairy tales before they drift off to sleep. The opera belongs to the fevered space of the child and adult’s unconscious, visited by a motley crew of archetypes. Indeed, even some characters from the opera world.
Intriguingly enough, however, these elements of Wilkie’s show are ultimately a bit under-developed and perhaps a bit too heavy for the light and balmy touch offered by the company’s season. The fact that it doesn’t quite come off speaks to the difficulties in placing the opera tonally.
Deft & Professional
Otherwise, the execution is deft and professional as done by the young cast. Bence Kalo is the Young Artist director this year, and while it is Wilkie’s production, Kalo was given scope to prepare his own blocking for his colleagues. Overall, the movement is taut and lively throughout. The title pair are effervescent and playful in the kitchen in Act one. The Gingerbread Witch has pitch-perfect mannerisms in her fascist incarnation, while moving elsewhere with malevolent gracefulness. Peter, sung by Edward Kim, is a hugely characterful presence. His voice is chilling and compelling in his Act one narration about the Witch, portraying a swaggering drunk on his first entrance.
The chorus are called on extensively in the ballet sequence at the end of the first half, which they do with character and gusto. The child choristers of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School are in boisterous voice and remarkably disciplined in their final scene as they awaken one by one with sweetshop balloons in hand.
Emily Christine Loftus brings a wide range of moods and colors to Gretel. The bright vigor in her voice captures the ingenu in the character earlier on. By the opening of the second half, when she awakens, there were intimations of a more Wagnerian kind of introspection. She displays richer, glowing colors and textures as she comes into a new kind of consciousness. One might foresee Loftus as a fine Elsa or Senta in her future. Her dramatic arc, from innocence to experience, was beautifully captured through her voice. Her trouser role counterpart, Shakira Tsindos, sang Hänsel with swashbuckling verve. She found a nice balance between both warmth and swagger. Her impressive chest voice reflected the character’s open-heartedness and exuberance.
The Gingerbread Witch is always a show-stealer and Ella de Jongh’s performance is a good reminder why. Vocally she is highly assured, with gleaming top notes and a syrupy middle register that pulls the children into her clutches. Her vocal mannerisms brought the character to life and revealed an actor of considerable élan, all electric swoops and devilish cackling. When you have a gingerbread house, it would be rude not to chew the scenery, after all.
Madeleine Boreham’s Gertrud found a Wagnerian world-weariness in her performance of carefully calculated intensity that underlined the darker elements of the opera. Her voice smoldered with an almost Kundry-esque quality when she sank into her chair for an uneasy sleep in Act one. Edward Kim’s Peter is quite a different proposition to the weathered, granitic tones of Paul Carey Jones in the main cast. But he makes his own kind of impact with his lithe and irrepressible baritone that has a real storytelling immediacy through its brightness and precision. There is plenty of power and ping too, especially in the clarion-call tra-la-las in his first scene.
Eleanor Broomfield‘s voice was effervescent and crystalline as the Dew Fairy. She was impressive with her silvery quality and clarity. Claudia Haussmann was less assured as the Sandmann and sounded slightly brittle and clouded in the auditorium’s considerable expanse, though she gave a compelling and dramatic presence nonetheless.
Charlotte Corderoy conducted the City of London Sinfonia, back on their regular west London beat for Opera Holland Park, who performed with characteristic alertness and verve. If their numbers were slightly smaller than one might hope for a score that calls for Wagnerian lushness, this was offset by the overall nimbleness of the account. Details pop, articulation keeps the score fizzing, and Humperdinck’s sweeping transitions were handled especially impressively by Corderoy, who pressed on tempi to prevent things from getting too sleepily indulgent. The overture and ballet sequence were especially vivid instances of musical storytelling that supported the drama, in this respect. The production might be uneven, but the singing and music is anything but.