Hänsel und Gretel, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow ***
Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel – based on the Grimms’ fairytale – is ripe for imaginative interpretation. In this version by director Stephen Lawless, which marks a return to live performance for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s opera and performing students, albeit to limited audience numbers, we don’t travel far.
The story is set in Glasgow – an onstage Salvation Army band opens the action – and there’s more than a hint of darkness in its addressing of child poverty (the family’s squalid flat), contemporary child exploitation (the witch cast as a celebrity TV chef), even a soupçon of class distinction (the parents of the other children look very Bearsden). In the end it doesn’t really delve deep enough into this sense of time and place to carry complete conviction, but it’s quirky and entertaining in a Christmas panto sense.
In the title roles, Ascelina Klee as Hänsel (caricatured Simpsons-like with angry schoolboy hair) and Elena Garrido Madrona as Gretel (a plain, sensible schoolgirl) maintain a glowing chemistry, Madrona’s sweetly rounded soprano voice complementing Klee’s rich, wholesome mezzo. As the struggling parents, Amy Strachan (a despairing NHS worker) and Toki Hamano (a suitcase salesman) evoke inner warmth and outer frustration.
Cameron Mitchell’s amusing drag-act Witch seems somewhere between Fanny Craddock and Barbara Cartland (a bulked-up vision in pink), though stops short of real menace. Actors, dancers and a host of children add to the crowd, hitting sentimental heights in a pious, dreamy nativity scene.
There’s genuine elan in the motivated orchestral playing under conductor Adam Hickox, which mostly offsets lingering insecurities in the string tutti. Is it Derek Clark’s skilfully reduced orchestration or just skewed balancing that neuters the big Wagnerian swells? The latter, probably. As a whole, though, this is a performance worthy of this critical moment.
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