Presented by State Opera of South Australia
Reviewed Saturday 6th November 2010
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: 7:30PM Tues 9th, Thurs 11th and Sat 13th November
Duration: 2hrs incl interval
Tickets: Prices start from: adult $50/conc $45
Bookings: BASS 131 241 or http://www.bass.net.au
State Opera is on another winner with this superb production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Märchenoper (fairy tale opera), based on the tale by the Brothers Grimm as adapted by Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette. This was originally an Opera Australia production directed by Elijah Moshinsky that State Opera are restaging, rehearsed by Richard Jones. Adelheid Wette softened some of the harsher aspects of the Grimm’s tale and added a couple of new characters, the sandman and the dew fairy. Originally Humperdinck wrote four songs for a puppet show given by his nieces than this was enlarged in to 16 song cycle with words by his sister, composed for Christmas. He later extended the idea into this full opera that premiered in 1893, conducted by Richard Strauss. The Christmas connection continues to this day, being the time of year most common for this work to be performed. The music is very melodic, using thematic material inspired by folk songs, the best known being the Abendsegen (Evening Benediction) from the end of Act 2 as the children prepare to sleep. It is also harmonically rich, showing some of the influence of Wagner.
The first act is set in the home of a broom maker, where his two children are supposed to be working, but they neglect their homework and, by the time the mother returns, they are dancing. In her anger she spills the milk, the only remaining source of sustenance left in the house, so she sends them out to look for strawberries in the forest. When the father gets back, somewhat intoxicated, he explains that he has had a good day selling brooms and has purchased plenty of food. When he discovers that the children have gone alone into the forest, he and his wife go in search of them.
The next two acts are set in the forest where the children pick strawberries, eat them, then find that it is getting late and they are lost. They sleep there over night. They awake to find the gingerbread cottage where the witch captures them, caging Hansel to fatten him up for the oven and making Gretel her slave. Gretel eventually outsmarts her and all ends happily.
Set and costume designer, Mark Thompson, has located the second and third acts not in a physical forest, but in a surreal forest of the mind. His set is a combination of distorted, oversized elements of his cottage interior scenery in the first act, a huge banister, a door off its hinges, a clock face in the background and massive, cracked floorboards tapering off into the distance. The lighting, by Nigel Levings, complements and enhances the set, helping to create the fantasy feel and generate feelings of unease.
It took only a few bars of music to realise that conductor, Lionel Friend, fully understood the score and just how to interpret it. He brought out every subtlety, every nuance, the flowing melodies and the intricate harmonies. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra responded to his leadership, playing at their very best. Then, as the overture ended, it was quickly apparent that the casting for this production was impeccable.
Mezzo-soprano, Victoria Lambourn, as Hansel, and soprano, Jacqueline Porter, as Gretel, bring out the all of the wonder in this delightful fantasy. There is a wealth of fun, energy and enthusiasm in their performances as the two children. There is the lightness and playfulness in the early scenes as they play games, tease one another and dance together, and that atmosphere continues as they later pick strawberries and eat them. They gradually change demeanour as they then become frightened and draw closer to one another when they realise that they are lost in the forest. The dynamics of their relationship change subtly as they begin to understand the dangers of their situation. Their Abendsegen in particular is beautifully sung and a marvellous ending to the second act.
Roxane Hislop and Douglas McNicol are the parents, Gertrude and Peter, offering well-rounded and convincing performances with plenty of emotional variation. Hislop enters agitatedly, showing her worry that she has no food, switches neatly to annoyance, then to a sheepishness at what she has done, when confronted by her husband. Her fear for her children is clearly seen and heard in her singing. McNicol’s entrance is marked by joviality born of alcohol and he plays it skilfully, avoiding the overacting so often seen when somebody plays a drunken man. He gives us a big and blustery, good-natured man and a concerned father in another rich performance.
The second act ends by emphasising the fantasy elements, with the Sandman, sung by Cherie Boogaart, sprinkling sand into the eyes of the two children to make then fall asleep, following which the angels descend to watch over them. The final act then begins with the Dew Fairy, sung by Jessica Dean, awakening them to a new day, only for them to discover an edible house and find themselves in danger. This, of course, is the bait in the trap of the cannibalistic Witch. Even in these two minor characters, casting has been carefully considered, with the two singers sympathetic to their roles.
Anke Hoeppner is simply terrific as the Witch, menacing but comical, a Grimm Mrs. Lovett. Her appearance, body language and the way that she uses her voice are all congruent, and the audience just loved to hate her. She made the character her own and her brilliant performance would be hard to beat anywhere. She trod a fine line between being evil enough for the production to work, but not so scary as to frighten the very young in the audience.
This is a very approachable production and perfect for a family outing, with plenty for the discerning adult opera lover, as well as being an ideal introduction to opera for much younger people. It is sung in English, but also has surtitles. Be sure to take advantage of the special price for children. There were a good many youngsters in the opening night audience and the smiles on their faces as they were leaving, along with their excited chatter, said everything. This would be an ideal early Christmas treat for all the family so don’t miss it.
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.