So I had high hopes of the new production for Olivia Fuchs’ new production, designed by Niki Turner, which opened at Garsington Opera on Sunday 23 June 2013 with Anna Devin as Gretel, Claudia Huckle as Hänsel, William Dazeley as Father, Yvonne Howard as Mother, Susan Bickley as the Witch, Rhiannon Llewellyn as the Sandman and Ruth Jenkins as the Dew Fairy, conducted by Martin Andre.
The new Garsington Opera stage is open plan, without flies and wings, and you can see through the transparent walls of the opera pavilion to the surrounding woods. Fuchs and Turner capitalized on this by bringing the woods into the theatre with a permanent set of trees surrounding a huge open book of Grimms fairy tales. For each scene the book opened to rather magically reveal the set (Hänsel and Gretel’s house, the witch’s house).
The opera effectively started before a note of the overture was played, because the five angels (black coated and hatted actors) were walking about the auditorium. These were constant presence throughout the opera. To a certain extent they were a necessary evil, because someone needed to change the sets. But they also interfered with the action and and watched it, though it was never quite clear who they were. During the witch’s ride (between acts one and two) they donned masks and careered round the stage, during act two they put on animal heads and helped scare the children and during the dream sequence at the start of act three they appeared with huge wings, as angels proper. They seemed to be a-moral watchers, and somewhat creepy, rather than benevolent beings.
One weakness of the staging was in the orchestral interludes (the witch’s ride and the dream sequence) what was happening in the pit was far more dramatically interesting than the action on stage. The basic concept behind the production was quite magical, with the opening and closing of the book as the basis for a performance of Hänsel und Gretel. Fuchs and Turner created an imaginatively fun evening. But, as I have said, there are undercurrents to the story which were acknowledged in different ways by David Pountney’s famous production for ENO and, more recently, in Richard Jones’s very different take on the opera for WNO (also seen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York).
Fuchs and Turner’s iconography seemed to hint at possibilities, but was never fully resolved. During the overture the angels ‘helped’ Hänsel and Gretel to discover a 1950’s TV set which the children watched avidly. When the captive children were discovered at the witch’s house they were also engrossed in watching a TV set, but this was never explained.
Similarly, elements from Hänsel and Gretel’s life were displayed on a bigger and bigger scale as the opera progressed so that the witch’s hut was surrounded by giant cakes, sweets, Gretl’s doll and the stove from the house in act one. The children’s dream at the start of act three consisted of cake and more cake, with the angels bringing on ever bigger cakes. Then at the end of the opera the angels fed the now revived children with real cakes (eaten with some relish).
Whatever the questions posed by the opera Hänsel und Gretel, Fuchs and Turner seemed to be saying that the answer was cake. The opera is surely more complex than that. This weakness seemed to be personified by the witch, played by Susan Bickley as a glamorous candy-floss haired, champagne swigging figure. Even when Bickley took her wig off to reveal a bald head, she was not terrifying (in fact she resembled a character from the TV series ‘Eurotrash’). Now, I know that Bickley can be terrifying, I’ve just seen her playing Ortrud in Lohengrin at WNO. So this soft edged, fun version of the witch must have been deliberate. In the right dramatic hands, the witch can dominate the opera, even though the role is relatively short. But here, even though Bickley sang very finely, the character was hardly a tour de force.
This was all the more frustrating as Fuchs depiction of the Sandman at the end of act two (finely sung by Rhiannon Llewellyn) had been genuinely creepy and avoided the cutesy. That said, the opera was imaginatively presented and the audience clearly loved the fun side of it, helped by some very fine personen regie.
Devin and Huckle made a believable Hansel and Gretel, recognizably childish in their personalities and certainly not good. Sometimes the action of act one can seem a little awkward and arch, but here Fuchs developed a fine naturalistic relationship between Devin and Huckle. Huckle made one of the most believable boyish Hänsels I have seen in a long time and Devin was certainly no cute, goody two-shoes Gretel. The set pieces were well sung and the two singers were well balanced, and gave completely engaging performances. Unlike some performances, acts one and two positively flew by.
It helped that in Yvonne Howard and William Dazeley we had a mother and father who combined musicality with a dramatically edgy relationship. Dazeley played father as a drunk who clearly beat and sexually abused his wife, and the two seemed to have a troubling co-dependent relationship. It was this which was the scariest part of the opera, Fuchs seemed to be saying that fantasy was nowhere near as dangerous as real life.
Both Rhiannon Llewellyn, as the Sandman, and Ruth Jenkins as the Dew Fairy, contributed beautifully poised accounts of their arias. The school children from Old Palace School and Trinity Boys Choir were enthusiastic participants in Fuchs lively activities and delivered their choruses nicely.
In the pit, Martin Andre drew warm and sophisticated playing from the Garsington Opera Orchestra. The opera is quite heavily scored, after all Humperdinck was a disciple of Wagner’s, but Andre ensured that the balance always worked well and that the singers were well supported but never had to struggle to dominate the orchestra. It is easy to dismiss Hänsel und Gretel as kitsch fun, but clearly Andre and Fuchs took the opera seriously and drew very strong performances from the cast. If only Fuchs had dared to give us the darker vision that she hinted at.