Everyone loves a fairytale. Their appeal is universal and not bound by age, race or gender. The work of German composer Engelbert Humperdink (not the luxuriously hirsute pop singer by the same name), Hansel and Gretel delighted first-night audiences in Brisbane and, I suspect, brought out the child in many a weary opera patron.
Fresh, lively and exciting, Hansel and Gretel benefits greatly from the in-built knowledge the audience has of the story. Freed from the necessity to become familiarized with the plot, the audience is able simply to enjoy a marvelous tale spun by assured performers. Director Julie Edwardson elicits great performances from the talented cast and keeps the pace brisk.
As the neglectful stepmother Gertrude, Jacqueline Mabarbi is wonderful. Bristling with dour Soviet-bloc attitude, she brings dimension and humanity to what could have been a one-note role. Baritone Henry Ruhl is also terrific as Peter, the jocular, drunken father of Hansel and Gretel.
In the role of Rosina Dainty-Mouth, the wicked witch who’s more gourmand than gourmet, Rosemary Arthurs is both terrifying and deliciously comical. Sporting a hairstyle that would scare off a valkyrie and a piratical eye patch, Arthurs embraces her ghoulish role with relish, delighting both the younger audience members and the more staid.
But it’s young Queensland Conservatorium graduate Amy Wilkinson who steals the wicked witches thunder as the resourceful Gretel. Taking on her first major role, Wilkinson shines, displaying great confidence with both the vocals and the acting. Caitlin Halcup, channeling Harry Potter in specs and school uniform, is also terrific as hungry Hansel.
The blurb on Hansel and Gretel describes the set design as eye catching – it is so much more than that. I had come expecting literal scenic interpretations, primordial forests or a twee cottage, but the set designed by Mark Thompson is truly breathtaking.
When the curtain rose on the fairytale realm of the forest, the audience actually gasped in unison. The forest, no longer the familiar wooded realm, is pushed into liminal territory.
Giant ebony banisters, through which a child might peer down into an adult world, line the stage, which is dominated by a luminous clock doubling as the moon. The trees themselves are represented by long, sinister black planks reaching into the unknown where angels or demons may lurk.
Some of the special effects are also marvelous. A dreamily atmospheric scene in which Hansel and Gretel are visited by Pre-Raphaelite angels was particularly memorable. My only criticism would be that perhaps a little more restraint could be exercised with the smoke machine. There’s nothing like a choking, red-eyed audience to sap the atmosphere.
Running at two hours and ten minutes Hansel and Gretel is short, tightly directed and…fun. Madame Butterfly it isn’t - but it is the kind of light, enjoyable production likely to convert the opera skeptic and unleash the inner-child.
Opera Queensland presents
Hansel and Gretel
by Engelbert Humperdinck
Conservatorium Theatre | South Bank
7 to 28 July, 2007
7, 10, 12, 14, 17, 19 (sunset) 21, 24, 26 & 28 (matinee) July
30 Below (formerly Young Access) performances:
10 & 17 July at 7.30pm
Qtix 136 246 or online www.qtix.com.au