Hansel and Gretel

Engelbert Humperdinck
Opera North
Leeds Grand Theatre

Fflur Wyn as Gretel and Katie Bray as Hansel Credit: Robert Workman
Katie Bray as Hansel, Susan Bullock as the Witch and Fflur Wyn as Gretel Credit: Robert Workman
Katie Bray as Hansel and Fflur Wyn as Gretel Credit: Robert Workman

For the second show of its fairy-tale season, Opera North has chosen to stage Engelbert Humperdinck’s enduringly popular Hansel and Gretel (1893). Hailed by fellow composer Richard Strauss as a “masterpiece”, Hansel and Gretel is arguably the most beloved and admired of all fairy-tale operas.

In this wonderfully inventive and dynamic production from director Edward Dick, Hansel (Katie Bray) and Gretel (Fflur Wyn) are not the storybook characters that we have come to expect but a couple of bored, neglected kids living in a tower block. Although Humperdinck dispenses with some of the most familiar elements of the Grimm Brothers’ original tale (the wicked stepmother, the loving-but-henpecked father, the trail of breadcrumbs), he retains its wonderfully wicked villain. After spending a night in the forest, Hansel and Gretel wake up to discover that a magical edible house has appeared in the middle of the woods. The occupant, however, a glamorous witch in a fur coat (Susan Bullock), has fiendish plans in store for the children.

Like John Fulljames’s recent staging of The Snow Maiden, Dick relies on projection to differentiate the different settings of the piece. The Witch’s house, for example, is not the gingerbread edifice that we might expect, but rather a sickeningly bright amalgam of contemporary junk foods. While some purists may criticise this technique, I think it provides both an eye-catching setting to the second half and a gentle critique of what some parents choose to feed their children.

The use of video in this production is highly impressive. In the first half, Dick alludes to The Blair Witch Project (1999) by having Hansel and Gretel take turns filming each other up close and then projecting the footage onto the screen behind them. The first half ends with a surprisingly moving short film in which the brother and sister (here played by actual children) play at the seaside.

As with previous Opera North productions, Hansel and Gretel benefits enormously from a highly talented cast. Not only do Katie Bray and Flur Wyn sing beautifully as the eponymous siblings—particularly in the famous duet where they sing themselves to sleep—they also vividly convey the pleasures and terrors of children. The scene in which they giddily demolish a chocolate cake is particularly charming and funny.

Susan Bullock gives a superbly unorthodox performance as the Witch. Rather than giving us the standard crone with a pointy hat and a warty nose, she plays her as a wonderfully camp blend of Debbie Harry and Divine, with just a pinch of Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989). Her performance in the second half is filled with delightful character touches, highlighting the influence that Humperdinck’s opera has had upon contemporary musical productions.

The supporting cast also excel in their smaller roles. Stephen Gadd shows off his fine voice as the children’s alcoholic father, and there are memorable appearances from Rachel J Mosley as the Sandman and Amy Feston as the Dew Fairy.

Hansel and Gretel is one of the finest Opera North productions I have seen, blending magic, comedy and horror to great effect. The orchestra, led by conductor Christoph Alstaedt, demonstrates admirably why Humperdinck’s score has remained popular for so long.

Reviewer: James Ballands