Engelbert Humperdinck, HANSEL AND GRETEL: Pascale Spinney (Hansel), Taylor Pardell (Gretel), Ryan Downey (the witch), Peter Monaghan (Father), Leah Giselle Field (Mother), Vanessa Oude-Reimerink (Sandman/Dew Fairy), Viktor Lukawski, Lenard Stanga (Puppeteers), Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Alexander Prior, Conductor, Vancouver Opera Children’s Chorus, Angus Kellett, Director, Brenna Corner, Stage Director, Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, November 24, 2016.

All Photos by Tim Matheson

All Photos by Tim Matheson

Belonging to the genre of märchenoper, or ‘folk-tale opera’, Hänsel und Gretel formed part of the 19th-century European project to define the nation through stories of the ‘folk’. Perhaps the most famous collection was that of the Brothers Grimm, whose tales probe dark archetypes of the human psyche, with a focus on the primal settings of family and forest and their attendant fears: inadequate means, abandonment by parents, leaving home and losing one’s way, the encounter with The Other, victimization, even cannibalism. In the old telling, the tale is ‘grim’ indeed, its truths pertaining to a much harsher world than we occupy today. Humperdinck’s opera tones down the darker elements of the tale, transforming it into a delightful children’s Christmas entertainment. The cruelty of the parents has been mitigated and the witch’s malevolence made comic.

Initially written as four Hansel and Gretel folksongs for his nieces, it grew into a full-fledged opera at the behest of their mother, who wrote the libretto. It remains one of the most important 19th-century German operas and has found resonance ever since its first performance. Its music is rich, with deft integration of folksong and its opulent Wagnerian musical language. Folksong features most prominently in Act 1, in the home of the children, as they try to stave off hunger and cheer themselves with dance and song. But it is in Act 2 in the forest and with the introduction of the supernatural where the music takes over the story telling, making the opera a sophisticated and layered work of the imagination.

Let it be said from the outset that this was no ‘ordinary’ production of Hänsel und Gretel. In addition to director Brenna Corner’s further creative adjustments, and being sung in English, the production introduced two other important innovations: first, set in a smaller space, it employed reduced and altered instrumental forces; second, it made extensive use of puppets. If one has learned to love the rich Wagnerian glow of the orchestration, then the stripped-down arrangement of Anatoly Korolyov used by conductor Alexander Prior certainly required a little time to get used to.  The offerings of the 14-piece ensemble (including a saxophone and electric guitar) were never less than serviceable but it seemed sometimes that the ‘meaning’ of the music was altered in a way that was not quite right and displayed unnecessary license. For me, the tonal fabric of the Overture sounded ‘off’ and, at a variety of critical points, I longed for greater richness and radiance: the saxophone hardly found the same effulgence that a chorus of horns might.  The use of puppets was very much in the manner of Julie Taymor’s Met production of The Magic Flute a few years back --where the puppeteers are fully visible to the audience. I occasionally found this intrusive: for example, when a stocky middle-aged man runs about with a bird at the end of a stick. Too much man, too little bird! To be fair, however, most of the puppets were apt and certainly proved a hit with the audience. The most effective was that used for the Witch, with the puppeteer invisible within the costume (except for the legs) and the singer in front, enfolded in the robe of the Witch floating above him.

But, not to worry: if the essential aim of the production was to produce delight, it certainly succeeded. And I just sat back and enjoyed the spirit of this youthful cast. Overall, it turned out as an exceedingly good-natured piece of theatre: imaginatively directed, delightfully acted, with fine pacing throughout. The sets were impressive—colourful, mobile two-dimensional flats looking like a pop-up book. In fact the ‘book’ was one of the major conceits of the production, which opened and closed with a boy sitting stage front, reading the book from which the story emerged. Some were striking, if untraditional, like the Witch’s house, not a gingerbread cottage, but more an exotic fruit gone mad from a regimen of growth hormones. But it was fun to look at, which is its justification.

Hansel and Gretel, played respectively by Pascale Spinney and Taylor Pardell, were hugely personable. Both sung and acted with great élan and youthful energy—Hansel being a ‘real boy’ and Gretel a sweet girl of strong character. They were also capable of quieter moments, as in their prayer duet of Act 2, which they sang with ethereal beauty. In the pantomime tradition of cross-dressing, the Witch was played by Ryan Downey, a tenor (the part was written for a mezzo-soprano). Downey did a fine job, hamming up this character part with appropriate glee. Vanessa Oude-Reimerink sang beautifully as the Sandman, but rather shrilly as the Dew Fairy. I had to look in my programme to make sure it was the same person. Perhaps it takes a bit of shrillness to wake someone up in the morning!

Act 1 is mainly exposition—a family suffering from hunger, its children bored by the necessary means of production—and inevitably falls a bit flat, with no dramatic conflict to enliven it, and the folksongs growing thin. Perhaps this is what gave Humperdinck pause about setting the story as an opera in the first place. But with Acts 2 and 3, he makes up for it. Act 2 is often pure magic, with its lyrical encounter with the forest and the supernatural. While this scene was, for the most part, effectively realized by the singers and the smaller ensemble, perhaps the puppets didn’t always work; you would never mistake the floating jelly fish for the angels they are supposed to be. In fact, the dimension of the benign Providence of German folklore was underplayed, at times making this scene rather Disney-like. Nonetheless, a genuine dramatic strength and sense of occasion were consistently maintained, thanks to Brenna Corner’s imaginative direction and the splendid sets of Old Trout Puppet Workshop (Peter Balkwill and Pityu Kenderes).  Add to this the superb acting/singing of the two principals, the estimable Sandman of Ms Oude-Reimerink, and Humperdinck’s potent music itself.

Act 3 is where the real dramatic action comes most fully to life, and this production did it proud with its comic timing and the pointing up of some of the Witch’s witty lines. The wicked Witch—after all, a frightening cannibal—is brought under psychic control by making her a truly comic figure. The direction and acting provided fun in spades, producing a delightful end to a delightful evening. A gratifying final flourish was the divine children’s choir (thanks to Angus Kellett) that put the seal on a Vancouver Opera production that increasingly won our hearts. I would have loved to attend one of the matinees to watch the children in the audience being as enchanted as their older counterparts were on this occasion.


© Harvey De Roo 2016