first night

Hansel and Gretel

Joe Leather enjoys a feast of sweet song in DOE's Hansel and Gretel

First, something needs to be cleared up. There are two Engelbert Humperdinck’s out there in the world; one a singer of popular music, the other a composer. If you, like me, were surprised that such a…’unique’ name could coincidentally have belonged to two such starkly different musical successes, Engelbert the pop sensation was in fact born Arnold George Dorsey. The composer Engelbert was not involved in any name change by deed poll; this Engelbert was born in 1854 and is best known for the work that DOE offered up this evening: Hansel and Gretel.

This operatic adaption generally stays true to the popular brothers Grimm fairytale, but there are some differences in character, such as Father (Tate) and Mother (Harris) being concerned for their children’s safety and not responsible for luring them into the forest. The opera itself is very female-heavy; but there was something refreshing about seeing such a display of ‘girl power’ on the Assembly Rooms stage and the evening made for an enjoyable one.

The first mention must go to the orchestra. Under the skilful hand of Calum Zuckert, the audience was immediately immersed into the setting of the mystical wood where Hansel and Gretel live. In some shows numerous overtures can be a chore, but in this performance it was always a pleasure to hear the band pipe up. (Excuse the pun?)
In fact, musically the show was almost flawless. From the midst came a range of gorgeous voices. Elen Roberts was loveable as the sweet Gretel, with an even sweeter voice. The Mother (Camilla Harris) and the Dew-fairy (Charlotte La-Thrope) both performed some wonderful vocals. When the Chorus got the chance to sing the effect could be spine-tingling. However, many of the cast did suffer from a degree of disconnection from anything beyond the music of the piece, perhaps due to first night jitters. I would have liked to see more conviction in the characterisation of some of the cast.

This is not to say characterisation was absent from the show entirely; the most compelling evidence of this was Polly Leech as Hansel. She immediately drew the eye, and was absolutely dedicated to emulating the greedy, boyish charm of the fairytale youth. She seemed to truly connect with the lyrics of the piece and moved with confidence and flair. She demonstrated technical excellence, with clear enunciation combined with killer comic timing. In fact, both she and Roberts fared brilliantly when singing lying on their back, hunched over or energetically skipping from corner to corner all whilst projecting over an orchestra.

Two other characters are also worthy of mention. Father (Daniel Tate), the only male amongst a troupe of singer ladies had an incredibly compelling baritone voice and handled the drunken nature of the character well. The Witch (Fleur Moore-Bridger) commanded attention from the moment her painted nails grasped the corner of the stage. I would have relished the chance to see both of them take their characters even further in line with the fantastical nature of the piece.

Beyond the characters, some of the stagecraft was highly effective. Some segments, directed by India Furse and Assistant Director Matthew Caine, were brilliant. The entire berry-eating scene at the start of Act 2 was hilarious and slick. The witch’s spell in Act 3 Scene 3 definitely reminded me of a certain West End show involving another Wicked Witch in the best possible way. Whilst the set started off perhaps a little too sparse, once we entered the forest and later the gingerbread house the stage looked fantastic. This was all helped immeasurably by a well thought-out lighting design by Andrew Mathieson and Simon Watson.

Hansel and Gretel is a show that is still a little rough around the edges, but it is performed with zeal and at times very well directed. I can definitely think of worse things to do with an evening than to let Durham Opera Ensemble take you into the woods and through one of the Brothers Grimm’s best loved stories. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen the Assembly Rooms stage get so messy. Who’d have thunk it?

* * *

Joe Leather

11 November 2011

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
Our theatre that speaks for itself

DST is proud to be supported by: PwC