Engelbert Humperdinck’s lyrical family opera is presented in a charming production by Opera in Space in the Bussey Building, a former cricket bat factory in Peckham. In a 90-minute, straight-through promenade production, there are mercifully only three stops, corresponding to the acts of the opera, and much thought given to connecting these peregrinations.
Humperdinck’s opera sets a libretto by his sister Adelheid, based on the Brothers Grimm tale. Here, director Richard Pyros establishes a Christmas theme in the downstairs bar by subtly introducing soprano Honey Rouhani as a cabaret singer in a sparkling red dress, who croons her way through a set of jazzy Christmas favourites, accompanied on the piano by Nicola Rose. Then, seamlessly, while watched by the characters of Hansel and Gretel, a clarinet (Ross Newton) and cello (Kalina Dimitrova) join the piano to play the opera’s overture. Indeed, the trio performs surprisingly well throughout, offering accomplished playing and, in this instrumentation, able to suggest the lush, late-romantic orchestral idiom.
There is fine singing all round. As Gretel, soprano (and artistic director of Opera in Space) Sylvie Gallant is believable as the naughty child; so, too, mezzo Katie Slater as her mischievous brother Hansel. There is some delightful singing from them both, particularly the ‘Evening Prayer’ duet, which they sing in a first-floor forest, a dark room hung with tree-like ropes. There they encounter Rouhani in another sparkly number, this time as the Sandman, and a very large polar bear. A recorded version of the orchestral postlude then accompanies the final promenade to the second floor, where the trio again seamlessly take up the Act Three overture, curiously without a noticeable loss of volume. And it is here that, woken by the Dew Fairy (Rouhani sparkling once more) the children meet the witch in a rubber dress, in a rectangle of snow and a greenhouse for an oven.
Rhonda Browne is well cast as the scary Witch (though she is perhaps a little too intimidating as the children’s Mother, her strong dramatic soprano hinting more towards roles such as Elektra and Brünnhilde). All in all, a nicely balanced production and a surprisingly warm acoustic, despite it being set in a small factory building. Jonathan Lennie