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Humperdinck – Hansel and Gretel X 2

Hansel – Charlotte Stephenson

Gretel – Robyn Kirk

Witch – Stuart Haycock

Father – Gerard Collett

Mother – Amy Radford

Sandman – Adriana Festeu

Dew Fairy – Jessica Dean


Conductor  – Sian Edwards

Director – John Ramster


Royal Academy Opera 21 November 2008


As a foretaste of the festive season the Royal Academy of Music presented Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel directed by John Ramster, and enjoyed the luxury of two casts [The Royal Opera's Hansel & Gretel will open on 9 December].


This delectable score, with its sugary soft-centred tunes and luscious orchestration pays distant homage to Wagner but has the saving grace of brevity – not one theme overstays its welcome.


At this, the third performance, the cast was led by Robyn Kirk as Gretel and Charlotte Stephenson as Hansel [pictured], both very accomplished singers and very convincing children of the parents played by Amy Radford and Gerard Collett.  The mother presented rather a glamorous figure in high heels and jeans, while the antics of her partner suggested a feckless but loving personality.  The First Act was played out in a quite luxuriously equipped modern kitchen.  As everyone was lamenting the lack of food one can only assume all their money had been spent on the gadgets, or perhaps it was an ironic comment on their priorities – technology will be the death of us all!


In the Second Act, when the children are lost in the mysterious woods, the Sandman makes an appearance in the guise of an old tramp, sung by the mezzo soprano, Adriana Festeu.  As Hansel and Gretel eventually fall asleep after a final prayer, the fourteen angels descend to watch over them - as it is nearly Christmas surely we are allowed to believe in them?


They dream – this being an interlude providing the opportunity to fill the stage with figures representing episodes in their young lives.


With the Third Act we are introduced to the Dew Fairy and the confident voice and presence of Jessica Dean as she wakes the two sleeping adventurers.  It does not take long to find the gingerbread house and the witch who lives in it.


This evening the Witch was taken by a tenor, Stuart Haycock, as female singers seem to have taken a dislike to this role – it maybe that there is now an element of self-caricature in the depiction of witches and the like.


Haycock proved to be a fine figure of a man as he divested himself of his witch’s apparel.  Even so he was no match for the ingenious pair of children who soon bundled him into the oven prepared for their own immolation, releasing the gingerbread children from the witch’s spell.


Amid scenes of general rejoicing Hansel and Gretel were reunited with their parents, no doubt relieved there was no chance of their being entrusted to the tender mercies of Social Services.


The witch, now transformed into a sizeable cake, provided nourishment for all on stage at the conclusion of the festivities – myself, I prefer to stick to mince pies! 


The playing of the Sinfonia under the experienced guidance of Sian Edwards was, as you might say, the icing on the cake.


Stuart Jenkins


Engelbert Humperdinck Hänsel und Gretel

Hänsel Alice Coote
Gretel Camilla Tilling
Gertrud Irmgard Vilsmaier
Peter Eike Wilm Schulte
Witch Ann Murray
Sandman Eri Nakamura
Echo Simona Mihai

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Robin Ticciati
Director: Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier
Sets Christian Fenouillat
Costumes Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Christophe Forey

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
11 December 2008


Covent Garden's new production (given in German with English sur-titles) is short on magic and frisson and we, to our disappointment, must side with the many reviewers who took against it (readers of Musical Pointers opera reviews will be familiar with the collected reviews on The Opera Critic - see there a dozen of the first of ROH's two casts; non-subscribers can access them with free temporary membership).

Of the second cast, Alice Coote's mezzo dominated the lighter soprano of Camilla Tilling; Vilsmaier and Schulte were in splendid voice as their parents; Ann Murray [pictured cooking Hänsel] was not so as the Witch (a part often taken by singers past their prime). The childrens chorus at the end was surprisingly under-powered, but the orchestra under deputy conductor Robin Ticciati was fine; the valved horns produced real forest magic (better than does Christian Fenouillat's sets), their tone comparing well with the natural horns of the Orchestra of the Enlightenment two nights earlier.

I have tended to avoid H & G for many years; why so is encapsulated in John Snelson's article Memorable Melodies - - "we begin to hear a handful of children's songs from the moment the music begins - - their repetition makes it even easier to remember them". They tend to be in 4:4 and built in four bar phrases (we have a similar problems with Rimsky, e.g. his Sadko, which we tried listening to again recently, and gave up)...

My greatest pleasure of the evening came from reading children's illustrator Sarah Lenton's contributions to the uncommonly relevant programme book, its contents far more pertinent than is often the case. They are fully illustrated in her three down-to-earth articles, some addressed to children as well as grown-ups: Hansel and Gretel's Adventure; The World of the Brothers Grimm & Putting on the Show - the last dealing with the genesis and thinking behind this Leiser & Caurier production. With her permission I show one of her charming illustrations together with her photo of a German forest hut.

Next morning I read on line the original Grimms story; now that really is scary !

You can see the original cast on TV Christmas Day afternoon, and I guess it will be released on DVD in due course. But as of now, I would say that of the two Christmas staples, Hansel and Gretel and The Nutcracker, the latter has more to offer for children and adults, especially in the gorgeous San Francisco version recently released on DVD.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Picture credits: Royal Academy of Music / Mark Whitehouse
Royal Opera House Covent Garden/© Sarah Lenton & Bill Cooper