As far as child psychology is concerned, Humperdinck’s immortal fairy-tale opera Hansel and Gretel is a gift that never stops giving. Things such as greed, hunger, reward, deprivation, abuse, being careful what you wish for, denial of love – they have all had their share of the spotlight in stagings ranging from Alpine sublime to dreariest minimalism.
Stephen Medcalf’s production for Grange Park takes some of the above in its stride, and, while intensifying its darkness, he leaves room for much charm and humour. As he showed in his Walküre for Grange Park in 2017, he also has a sure and subtle hand in establishing character and motivation, and in Hansel and Gretel there is a strong element of revenge the children would like to take on their mother, who, as in many productions, does a double-act with the Witch, raising the ghost of the wicked stepmother of the Grimms’ folk-tale original. No wonder the Mother looks riven with guilt when both parents recover their abandoned children, the moment performed here with trenchant ambiguity.
Yannis Thavoris’s look is late-nineteenth-century, around the time of the opera’s premiere in 1893. The children’s room reeks of poverty, the forest becomes rows of ornate lampposts, the witch’s house is an old-fashioned Konditorei groaning with gateaux, and, as a mightily discomfiting coup, the final oven scene returns to the children’s bedroom, with everything more than twice the size.
The second Act, in which the children wander city streets pickpocketing to survive while city folk (during the ‘Witches’ Ride’ orchestral interlude) pursue their mostly venal concerns, is both Dickensian and bang up-to-the-minute in terms of deprivation. The ‘Angels’ Pantomime’, when fourteen angels see the children through the night, is one of the best ever, high on charm, imagination and tear-jerk. But there are endless resonances and connections animating this production, and its great strength is that they flow effortlessly out of each other.
And that’s before you get to the singing. As the children, Caitlin Hulcup and Soraya Mafi are outstanding, brimming with high spirits and optimism. With her silvery, flexible soprano, Mafi steers Gretel just short of soubrette delight, and Hulcup’s lovely mezzo expresses any amount of adolescent diffidence, courage and affection. Hulcup is a head taller than Mafi, which puts the finishing touch to their credibility as brother and sister, and throughout they are immensely affecting and strongly directed.
As Mother and Witch, Susan Bullock sings with Wagnerian command of a woman crushed by poverty and expanded by cannibalistic lust for gingerbread. She is magnificent in the Witch’s manic cooking preparations, a Great British Bake-Off from Hell that brings the house down, and in drag-queen make-up, a sculpted wig and a gown more upholstery than dress is a formidable sight. William Dazeley was pleading illness, but that didn’t hinder him from performing an incisively observed, feckless and heroically randy Father, devoted to his children. Eleanor Sanderson-Nash’s Sandman sends the children to sleep by blowing opium smoke over them, and Lizzie Holmes’s winning Dew Fairy delivers dew-fresh milk in jugs identical to the one the Mother spilt in Act One.
Humperdinck’s debt to Wagner is inescapable in this score, and George Jackson and the ENO Orchestra draw it out in a way that adds to the music’s stature without sounding merely derivative. A piercing solo trumpet in the Prelude for a moment stranded you in Parsifal, links between orchestra and singers were expertly and naturally judged, and the music’s abundance of charm, atmosphere and shameless memorability are all there for the hearing. If I were coming to this inexhaustible opera for the first time, this would be a touchstone production.