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Jurgita Adamonyté as Hansel and Ailish Tynan as Gretel [Photo courtesy of Welsh National Opera]
09 Mar 2015

Welsh National Opera: The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel

Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.

Welsh National Opera: The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Jurgita Adamonyté as Hansel and Ailish Tynan as Gretel [Photo courtesy of Welsh National Opera]


And, there is plenty of enchantment and surrealism to both captivate and unsettle as, respectively, Magritte mingles with Dalì, and the Brothers Grimm converge with Sendak.

Cooke’s Magic Flute is a surreal fantasy, populated with cloud-strung blue skies, bowler hats and orange umbrellas. Confronted with towering wooden doors arrayed in a sharp perspective (extended or foreshortened as the heroes’ trials unfold), we are reminded of the Masonic initial ritual of a triple rap to gain entrance to the hallowed chambers. Here, the three knocks were articulated with imposing nobility by the orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the precise, nimble baton of Lothar Koenigs, at the start of an overture which was characterised by some wonderfully lucid, airy string playing, and punchy accents which animated the quiet fugal passages.

In Cooke’s imagining through three of these soaring doors burst the giant antennae and crusher claws of a rabid crustacean — as if the ‘serpent’ with which the tuxedoed Tamino has to contend has risen up from the dinner plate of our dishevelled adventurer: the digestible turned would-be devourer. It is an insouciant symbol but one of many frivolous motifs — air-borne bicycles and mesmerised zoological exhibits — which are assimilated by Cooke within a narrative which embraces uplifting magic and a graver foreboding. Thus, in true surrealist fashion, it is the conjunction of familiar items in unfamiliar juxtapositions which results in a drama which is simultaneously playful and menacing. (It may or may not be relevant that lobsters had strong sexual connotations for Dalí and when they appeared in the artist’s drawings and designs were often associated with erotic pleasure and pain …)

The appearance of the aproned Three Ladies — who summarily dispatched the snapping shellfish — got things racing along with excited high-spiritedness. First Lady Camilla Roberts’s crystal clear tone and vibrancy delivered a strong lead for the individually differentiated but well-blended trio of ‘maids’, while Emma Carrington’s Third Lady provided a well-centred foundation for Roberts’ and a vivacious Máire Flavin. All three made the most of Jeremy Sams’s engaging translation to hook us into the absorbing quest ahead, their lively rivalry and sincere concern for Tamino stimulating our own curiosity and compassion.

The Magic Flute: The Wrath of Hell is Burning in my Bosom

From the first, Benjamin Hulett‘s Tamino was strongly characterised. Technically secure and confident, Hulett used his legato tenor most compellingly, soaring effortlessly. Throughout, the phrasing was shapely, the intonation excellent, and Hulett conveyed real conviction of feeling. My only small quibble is that perhaps there was just a touch too much dramatic stature and vocal strength for a youthful ‘apprentice-hero’ who is only just setting out on his path to valour and virtue — but one can hardly complain about singing so assured and appealing.

The arrival of Jacques Imbrailo’s Papageno lightened the earnestness: the mountain of green and red feathers cloaking the bird-catcher threatened to suffocate our net-wielding aviarian adventurer. Although Imbrailo took a little time to settle vocally — there were some slight intonation problems initially — his light baritone, beautiful phrasing and seductive warmth proved winning: this Papageno truly had a ‘noble heart’ whatever the surface rough edges. Especially touching was his duet with Anita Watson’s Pamina, ‘Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen’, in which they reflected on the joys and duties of love. If the baritone’s Afrikaners accent sometimes strangled the spoken dialogue, this became part of the birdman’s charm, and Imbrailo was increasingly at ease in the role: his misery at a lack of a nest-partner was so touching that I half-expected someone in the audience to respond to his pitiable plea for a Papagena!

Watson sang with a lovely crystalline lyricism, the sound never forced and always fresh. The tone colour perhaps lacked variety but her pianissimo was exquisite. ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ was replete with tender sadness. Samantha Hay’s Queen of the Night made a fantastical entrance in a glossy purple and jade farthingale, but was rather underwhelming as the vehement and vengeful empress. Hay struggled to establish a sufficiently striking dramatic stature or vocal presence: the initial passagework in ‘O zittre nicht’ was somewhat indistinct, but Koenigs supportively lessened the pace a fraction and Hay hit all the high notes, though they did not always glitter. ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’ in Act 2 was stronger, although the intonation and intensity was not always consistent.

Sarastro’s chief blackamoor is sometimes depicted as an out-and-out villain, despicable and repulsive, but as Monostatos, Howard Kirk effectively balanced menace and mischief, and sang persuasively (as did Ashley Holland, as the Speaker). Moreover, when seduced by Papageno’s magic bells Kirk impressed with his deftly executed changements and sautés. Sarastro himself was sung by a somewhat unreliable Scott Wilde: his greeting of Pamina at the end of Act 1 lacked authority, and suffered from unfocused tone and poor tuning, but Sarastro’s two Act 2 numbers (with considerable cuts) had greater nobility of line and conviction. Overall Wilde plumbed the depths resonantly, but struggled to effect an even transition to higher registers. Sarastro’s Templar brotherhood contributed to the strong singing, and to the surrealism: frequently buried with only heads visible, they raised umbrellas to signal their voting intentions and, when Papageno had at last found his partner, Claire Hampton’s sprightly Papagena, they discovered in their underground lair a brood of red and green Papageninos to the exuberant delight of the feathered couple.

Hansel & Gretel: Father, Mother

Only the Three Boys disappointed: Rachel Mills, Katrina Nimmo and Bianco (from the Welsh School of Music and Drama) sang sweetly enough, but didn’t make sufficient impact: they were surprisingly under-directed and it was hard to believe that these three ‘mechanical dolls’ would have averted Pamina and Papageno from their paths to self-destruction. Koenigs conducted with evident enjoyment and involvement; sensitive to his singers, he shaped the accompanied recitative with particular discernment. Overall, Cooke has combined ingenuity with innocence, and the result is beguiling and bewitching.

There could be no uncertainty about Richard Jones’s directorial fetish in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (here revived by Benjamin Davis): if the empty dinner plate, marred by a mere trace of blood, which adorned the Act 1 front-drop was insufficiently equivocal, the later image of a ravaged plate smeared with gory stains, knife and fork aggressively askew, left no doubt that the relationship between hunger and violence is at the heart of Jones’s nightmarish take on this fairy-tale fantasy.

Once again, the evening drew much superb playing from the WNO Orchestra. The overture was wonderfully transparent, as Koenigs thoughtfully revealed the inner movement of the string textures and made the countermelodies sing eloquently, while the perfectly pitched warm horns and buoyant trumpets captured, respectively, the familial love which survives despite the perennial hardship and the children’s unassailable optimism and abundance.

Jurgita Adamonyté’s Hansel and Ailish Tynan’s Gretel were as perfect a match as one could wish for. Tynan — all bouncy girlishness, arms swinging, bunches bobbing — sang with a thrilling bloom, fading beautifully then blossoming with brilliance as Gretel shrank in fear or swelled with excitement. It was no surprise that she was able to lure her reluctant, petulant brother to join her in a dance, sashaying away their hunger with a clap, clap, clap and a pat, pat, pat. Adamonyté’s tone production was incredibly even and glossy across a wide range; she matched Tynan for sheen at the top while finding a rich warmth in the lower registers — most especially in the children’s Act 3 duet when they share their consoling dreams of protecting angels. Whether she was naughtily slurping cream or messily stuffing herself with gingerbread, Adamonyté was utterly convincing as Hansel — all gangly, gamine exuberance and disarming unselfconsciousness: this urchin was irrepressible even when trussed like a turkey on the witch’s kitchen table.

Miriam Murphy was a negligent Mother of Wagnerian stature: vocally resplendent and physically domineering, she would strike fear into the heart of any naught imp with his fingers in the cookie jar. But, Murphy showed compassion too: her anguish when Father Peter gave a dire warning about what happens to children who stray in the forest was moving … and shocking, as the horrified Mother rushed to the sink, vomiting the fruits of Peter’s food basket which she had been so greedily gorging just moments before. As Peter, Ashley Howard sang lyrically and with real depth of tone. Nonchalantly entering via the cottage window, laden with gastronomic goodies, this Father was smooth of voice and suave of demeanour. But, he revealed a genuine sensitivity, singing with hushed tenderness of his fears for his berry-hunting children’s safety.

Adrian Thompson’s Witch stomped and exclaimed with real menace. Thompson, wearing grim grey attire and a fat suit, refrained from overly camp or hammy self-indulgence, and the result was grotesque and genuinely alarming. Determined to fatten Hansel for the platter, the Witch whizzed frothy pink milkshakes and churned a cornucopia of sugary powders and custards with manic abandon, scarily unhinged during her manic baking. Even though much of the role lies quite low in the voice, Holland’s diction was excellent (as was true of the entire cast, who made much of David Pountney’s memorable and engaging couplets). Holland’s tone was focused, and the occasional mad shriek was sufficient to remind us of the Witch’s murderous psychosis.

Manipulating the withered, white Sandman puppet, Meriel Andrew’s soprano sparkled ethereally, but she was less successful as the Dew Fairy, where a wide vibrato adversely affected both tuning and communication of the text.

The realism of John Macfarlane’s Act 1 set — the bare kitchen does not lack attention to detail: the cream jug rests atop the scruffy cupboard and a bucket is perched beneath the dirty sink, to catch the drips — contrasts wonderfully with the fantasies of the anthropomorphic forest, where be-suited trees with aspiring twig-wigs allow the industrious Hansel to rustle in their pockets for nuts and strawberries. In the Dream Tableau, the children’s guardian spirits are a dozen cherub-winged porcine chefs who lay the elongated table with succulent fare for the siblings’ dream-time delectation. Served by a fish-waiter, who bears himself proudly, the children tentatively don the white evening jacket and peach dress laid out before them, wide-eyed in wonder at the prospective feast. Jones’s tableau is a fabulous, utterly captivating representation of childhood fantasies, and imaginatively choreographed too, balancing ingenuity and formality.

The designs become ever more surreal. The Witch’s gingerbread cottage takes the form of a multi-tiered chocolate cake, served up on a curling, lurid pink tongue; this garish gateau is subsequently framed by a gaping mouth … the Freudian allusions may not be subtle but the threatening dark hole puncturing the gaudy red swirls of the front-drop is no less disturbing for that.

Despite the horrors of the Witch’s scullery, the children summon the powers of hocus pocus to first release Hansel’s ankle fetters and then free the other stolen children from their frozen bewitchment. With the Witch basting nicely in the oven, at last a feast awaits them. The final image of Hansel and Gretel gleefully clutching chunks of roast witch suggests that journeying ‘into the wood’ may be terrifying but that the horrors confronted therein are not necessarily dispelled by a return to ‘reality’.

Claire Seymour

Casts and Production information:

Mozart: The Magic Flute

Tamino, Benjamin Hulett; Pamina, Anita Watson; Papageno, Jacques Imbrailo; Sarastro, Scott Wilde; Speaker, Ashley Holland; Queen of the Night, Samantha Hay; First Lady, Camilla Roberts; Second Lady, Máire Flavin; Third Lady, Emma Carrington; Conductor, Lothar Koenigs; Director, Dominic Cooke; Set Designer, Julian Crouch; Costume Designer, Kevin Pollard; Lighting Designer, Chris Davey; Movement Director, Sue Lefton.

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel

Gretel, Ailish Tynan; Hansel, Jurgita Adamonyté; The Witch, Adrian Thompson; Peter, Ashley Holland; The Mother, Miriam Murphy; Sandman/Dew Fairy, Meriel Andrew;Conductor, Lothar Koenigs; Director, Richard Jones; Revival Director, Benjamin Davis; Designer, John Macfarlane; Lighting Designer, Jennifer Tipton; Original Choreographer, Linda Dobell; Revival Choreographer, Anjali Mehra-Hughes; Staff Director, Sarah Crisp.

Welsh National Opera, Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 6 March — Saturday 7 March 2015.

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