Manchester Theatre Awards

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Hansel & Gretel

Engelbert Humperdinck
Clonter Opera Theatre
Clonter Opera Theatre
21 July 2012 to 28 July 2012

Like many of the fairy stories from the Brothers Grimm, Hansel & Gretel has a lot of dark undertones, not least family dysfunction. Here we have two children growing up in a poor home and being sent into the forest by their mother to fend for food. They meet weird characters - the Sandman, who sprinkles them with dust and sends them to sleep, the Dew Fairy who wakes them up in the morning, and the Witch who tries to ensnare them. But it all ends happily - they stuff the witch into a big oven to die, they set free two children she's imprisoned and they are reunited with their mum and dad to live happily ever after. The kids have grown up.

It is a difficult opera to pull off, being a dark comedy, and Humperdinck's music, which provides several wordless but tuneful interludes, makes considerable demands on singers and orchestra. He was, after all, influenced by Wagner and mixed with other eminent German composers. Indeed, Richard Strauss conducted the premiere of Hansel & Gretel in 1893 in Weimar and Gustav Mahler conducted the Hamburg premiere a year later.

With their limited resources, the Clonter team give it a real go, but you can't expect a 16-piece orchestra, with only a couple of fiddles, to cope with the demands, even under the meticulous direction of veteran Clive Timms, the retired Head of Opera Studies at the Guildhall, where several of the seven-strong cast are studying.

The singing is of a high quality all round. I was particularly impressed with soprano Raphaela Papadakis as Gretel. She has a beautiful voice and stage presence. As Hansel, the mezzo Marta Fontanals-Simmons sings splendidly, but together they don't quite manage to click in character, although their Evening Benediction duet is very moving.

The star of the show is Helen Anne Gregory as the Witch, played as a larger-than-life soubrette, a temptress and a tyrant. Baritone Ben McAteer sings powerfully as Father, well partnered by Magdalena Molendowska as Mother. There are other good portrayals of Sandman and Dew Fairy by Elizabeth Desbruslais and Elinor Rolfe-Johnson respectively. One of the many pleasures of Clonter is hearing young singers as they build their careers. It makes you realise what a wealth of talent there is.

But the extraordinary element of this production is the staging - an absolute riot of colour once the splendidly-realised cottage interior of Act 1 is passed. Designer Eleanor Wdowski's costumes are visually outrageous, making the Witch, Sandman and Dew Fair look like characters from the commedia del'arte or the Venice Carnival. And her forest looks like a large cardboard cut-out of a Mexican desert. Her shop of tempting goodies, wheeled on in Act 2, is full of modern desirables for teenagers. So there's plenty of glitter and magic.

Martin Lloyd-Evans, a Manchester University physics graduate before going into music, directs. On this evidence, he is not afraid to put elements of pantomime into the mix. The show ends with the dead witch stretched out on a broomstick being dragged on to the stage while the rest of the cast reprise the famous nursery song and dance "With your foot you tap, tap,tap. With your hands you clap, clap, clap." And that's just what the audience did.

Reviewer: Philip Radcliffe


Comment by Robert Beale

Agreed this is an extraordinary achievement of direction and design. Eleanor Wdowski and lighting designer Alexandra Stafford deserve huge credit, as I expect they had to work on a very strict budget. It works brilliantly.

And agreed about the singers, especially Raphaela Papadakis. I saw it on the final night, and she and Marta Fontanals-Simmons were working beautifully together by then, as well as singing like angels.

Oddly enough, the band is the problem. Only 16 of them, but the pit is unshielded and I guess we heard most of the wind parts much as written. They did overwhelm the singers sometimes - whereas when Clonter last did the opera, in 1998, they had just piano, viola, cello, clarinet and horn and amazingly the Wagnerian score transmuted into lovely chamber music.