There are many versions of the folk tale of Hansel and Gretel. They range from the most grim (Grimm?) in which the children are intentionally abandoned to die in the forest by their starving mother to the more benign telling in which they are lost but guided by angels and spirits to safety.
Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera takes the latter approach. The composer was much influenced by Wagner, both musically and in subject matter, but rather than the mythic archetypes of the Ring story, he was taken with simpler folk tales. Hansel and Gretel, of course, is full of archetypes of its own: children, lost or abandoned by their parents; a wicked – indeed, cannibalistic – witch; heavenly creatures of all kinds. Directors can have a field day with this. In a recent Glyndebourne production, for instance, the two children became symbolic of starving children in a post-climate apocalypse world.
At Opera Holland Park, John Wilkie has taken the opera on its own deserved merits and given it the full fairy tale treatment. So there are white-masked forest creatures who guide and protect the children. The Sandman, majestically sung by April Koyejo-Audiger, sprinkles golden sleep dust for the sweetest dreams. While the Dew Fairy (a delightful Charlotte Bowden) sparkles as she wakes them.
The ending is all joy – there is not just plenty to eat but a joyful reunion with their parents, Meeta Raval as the despairing mother and a truly magnificent Paul Carey Jones on tremendous vocal form. There is a delightful children’s chorus for the finale.
As the children, Charlotte Badham (Hansel) and Laura Lolita Peresivana (Gretel) were utterly convincing in their scraps, teasing and fears. On occasion, Peresivana’s thrilling soprano rather overpowered Badham but mostly they were well matched, and their duet at the close of Act I was particularly touching.
Humperdinck’s glorious music was well served by the City of London Sinfonia under Karin Hendrickson, despite its comparatively scaled-down size. And Eleanor Dennis as the Gingerbread Witch – she starts as drag queen and finishes as goose-stepping Nazi – simply stole the show. It all goes to show that pantos are just as good in the summer in Holland Park.
Hansel & Gretel runs at Opera Holland Park for one more performance on 23 June at 7.30pm. For more information, and for tickets, please visit www.operahollandpark.com.
Photos by Ali Wright