Hansel and GretelEngelbert Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel

NI Opera, 2011 | Oliver Mears, David Brophy, Niamh Kelly, Aoife O’Sullivan, Graham Clark, Doreen Curran, Paul Carey Jones, Aoife Miskelly, Rebekah Coffey | Grand Opera House, Belfast - 25 November 2011

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the annual Christmas pantomime had arrived just slightly earlier than usual at the Grand Opera House this year judging by the number of parents with kids, the rustling of crisp packets and a lack of the normal respectful silence one would be accustomed to during the overture to an opera production at the august Belfast venue. But that’s the beauty of Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, which has the traditional fairytale elements that appeal to children, but also has a sumptuous score for opera lovers that lies in the Wagnerian tradition, if somewhat on the lighter side of the Teutonic scale. It’s also the beauty of the new approach to opera being taken by the director of NI Opera, Oliver Mears, who has not only gone out to smaller venues throughout Northern Ireland to seek out a new audience, but, as in the company’s approach to Tosca earlier this year with each of the three acts taking place in Derry in separate venues with local significance, he has also taken into consideration new ways to engage an audience and new ways to present an opera production.

The broad appeal characteristics of Hansel and Gretel however can still make it difficult to judge at what level to pitch it. As NI Opera’s first full-scale production at the Grand Opera House, following a number of smaller chamber works in other venues across the province, there must be an equal temptation to appease the traditional opera fans in the audience as much as play-up the fairy-tale elements and appeal to a new, younger audience who will undoubtedly engage with the strong mix of music, comedy, drama, horror and spectacle that the opera offers. To his credit, Mears doesn’t appear to attempt to steer the opera in any single direction, but instead pays close attention to the composition itself and allows the inherent playful but sinister qualities of Humperdinck’s work to find their own expression without having to make concessions to one audience or the other.

Like most fairytales, and certainly in the case of many of the works of the Brothers Grimm, the cautionary stories often have dark origins. Those are certainly there in Hansel and Gretel, they are there in Humperdinck’s opera and they are not at all underplayed or softened for a younger audience in this production. While the image of the gingerbread house filled with sweets is the most attractive and memorable image associated with the story there’s a warning about the dangers of gluttony in the fattening up of Hansel to be a tasty meal for the witch in the woods who uses her abode to lure young children to their doom. There’s evidently a cautionary element there also relating to the dangers of taking sweets from strangers – the unsettling posters of missing children in this production highlighting that this is more than just children lost in the woods – which takes the story into very dark territory indeed. There are also darker undercurrents in the story and in the opera concerning the relationship of the parents – an authoritative, even perhaps abusive mother and an alcoholic father – and how this relates to the children running away.

Hansel and Gretel

NI Opera’s production consequently avoided all the sugary-sweet Bavarian fairytale elements normally associated with the story, and instead set Act 1 in a rather more familiar modern home setting, even if some of the elements had a rather disturbing but delightfully subversive David Lynch feel to them. Much in the manner in which Lynch’s nightmares seep into the real world, a painting made by the children of a yellow stickman in the dark woods and stuck onto the fridge, forms the backdrop to Act II, the Sandman stepping eerily out of the painting to sprinkle sleep dust onto the children. In contrast to the chatter throughout Act 1 and enjoyment of the childish antics of the two children on the stage, you could have heard a pin drop at this moment, and undoubtedly terrifying as it might appear to the younger children in the audience, it’s an image that would certainly make a strong, memorable impression. Hansel and Gretel’s subsequent dream of the magical angels doesn’t bring any comfort to the children in the audience either, depicting a birthday feast where the mother’s head is presented on a platter.

Act III appears to go into full pantomime mode, with Graham Clark’s Witch almost rivalling May McFetteridge as the Belfast stage’s long-standing traditional pantomime Grand Dame, ending up spinning hilariously and eventually splattered gorily across the window of the giant microwave oven that emerges to dominate the set, but again, there is no holding back on the dark elements that are there in the plot and indeed in the deliciously rich musical score that does indeed have mystical Das Rheingold qualities. Like David Brophy’s conducting of the Ulster Orchestra, each of the singers played their part in reaching into the characters themselves for those deeper dark elements, but managed to balance this with a playful way that they are often expressed. Neither the score nor the singing could always compete with the spoken-out-loud reactions of the children in the audience, but Niamh Kelly’s mischievous Hansel, Paul Carey Jones’ strong deep baritone Father, Rebekah Coffey’s creepy Sandman and Graham Clarke’s well-judged performance and presence all commanded attention.

Performing Hansel and Gretel for an untypical opera audience no doubt presents some difficulties, but NI Opera, in their first full production as the new local opera company, seem once again to have got the balance absolutely right. They clearly know how to reach their audience, and it’s not by talking down to either the newer, younger audience or by aiming to satisfy expectations of traditional opera-goers. Rather, as previous productions have likewise shown, there has evidently been careful consideration given to the selection of works to present, less familiar operas certainly, but ones which ultimately can reach out and engage a modern audience. The NI Opera production of Hansel and Gretel, with the Ulster Orchestra, demonstrates that this needn’t involve any artistic compromise, but that through close attention to the score and the libretto itself, trusting in the strength of the characters and in the depth that is accorded to them through Humperdinck’s score, the work can be, should be and indeed was, eerie, enchanting and engaging in equal measures for the whole audience.