Hänsel and Gretel at the King’s Head

Although, on the face of it, Hänsel und Gretel seems an obvious choice for the small-theatre treatment, the lusciousness of the Romantic score appears to defy reduction to a single piano.  The through-composed structure also lends itself better to bigger operatic presentation, where the lack of linear breathing space has compensations in the expanse of the visual presentation.  The relentlessness of the score, with no stops for a bit of more manageable-scale dialogue, becomes very wearing ‘up close’.  The small King’s Head theatre room’s lack of flexibility in stage effects and lighting also robbed the performance of any of the aura of the magical, dimming an opera that relies on the fantastical to make its impact.

All of the performances were unflagging, but were forced to work very hard to overcome the rather drab presentation.  Most grievous of all was the lack of a transformation when the Witch took the children into her kitchen: some UV light revealed marks on the tree bark that had been the forest and a clump of trees, you eventually realised, was a cell for Hänsel.  A flickering light from one of the exit doors marked this out as the kitchen/oven, but not in any way that made sense until it was too late.  Lots of galloping about with a broomstick tried to make sense of the Witch’s Ride in the third act.  The dream sequence, although actually quite effective in the end, lacked any atmospheric lighting, so that I began by thinking ‘why are the parents here? If they find each other now, then what happens in the next act?’ – only subsequently realising this was, in fact, the dream pantomime.

Danae Eleni delivered a clear-voiced, bright Gretel, whilst Laura Kelly’s Hänsel took a little longer to settle in, and her fruity mezzo made her words more difficult to determine in the small space.  Mother and Father were Janet AN Fischer and Ian Wilson-Pope, he being particularly clarion as well as clearer of diction.  Rosalind Coad and Alexandra Stevenson were Sandman and Dew Fairy (a nice production trick had the Dew Fairy as a drunk/hungover party reveller, supping coffee to revive herself, although if you hadn’t known what function she played in the story, you’d have left none the wiser). Finally, the Witch of Ian Massa-Harris (incidentally also responsible for make-up design) was an unrelenting old-lady drag presentation, which played heavily on the darker implications of a man luring children to an unpleasant end but, ultimately, desperately needed a kitchen transformation for the last act in order to provide some counterweight to this grim sensibility, thereby placing the story back in the realm of the fantastical, from which it draws its greater power.

And so what of that initial qualm: the reduction of the score to a piano arrangement?  Actually, this was the absolute highlight of the performance.  Kelvin Lim, a few slips aside, played tirelessly to conjure a beautifully spare, but nonetheless resonant and decidedly Romantic, account of this many-layered score.  The dream sequence, in particular, spun out beautiful lines of melody. The old jangly upright has been replaced by a grand, albeit that this replaces one problem with another and now, instead of being slightly jarring in its coarse sound, it is now rather too loud for the performers, which adds to that unsettling relentlessness.

It’s always enjoyable to see Hänsel und Gretel again although, ultimately, I tend to think it’s a piece for bigger forces and spaces.  With a more imaginative production, however, I’d be pleased to be proved wrong.  Wilton’s Music Hall, perhaps…?

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