Review Hansel & Gretel, Mid Wales Opera, Riverfront Theatre, Newport by James Ellis

Photo credit Matthew Williams Ellis
 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

From Bristol to Newport, I got around this week for reviews and other endeavours. I’ve a soft spot for Engelbert Humperdinck’s take on the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel and Mid Wales Opera seemed up for the challenge. 

With their last night in Newport, things felt pretty tight for this showing, though a brief hiccup in the overture for the horn was as clear as day. This reduced orchestra had an easy time with the scores thanks to its approachableness and clarity. Conductor Jonathan Lyness kept it all together like a fine gingerbread house, compelling and fun. Written by the composer’s sister Adelheid Wette, David Pountey’s winking translation works well from his time with English and Welsh National Opera (the latter the bench mark from Richard Jones superb staging.) The easy fall back upon setting this in the 1980s are as standard now, though this family could easily be set now with raising gas prices, inflation and general hardships. Director Richard Studer has made safe decisions here: we see miners, milk and a mother’s anxiety at a tempestuous time for UK history, one now miring our own. Sets also by Studer come into their own with the out-house for the father, later turned into the garish Witch’s house, featuring acidic wallpaper and contraptions of the era.    

It’s easy to show the dark nature of the German fairy tale, the first two acts doing a good job in mood. Wales is blessed with great singers and here was no exception. Charlotte Badham and Ayls Mererid Roberts are fine leads, though the former has been given a costume which gives the appearance of a slubby middle aged man, as apposed to a boy. Phillip Smith as the Father is in proud voice which roars everything he vocalises, a fine highlight. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as both the Mother and Witch gets to show off drama and fun in these roles, near Wagnerian and then almost light Offenbach offerings. You can tell she enjoyed herself as the Witch, easy to fall into as we the audience are through the woods concerning plot and pacing and just get to enjoy ourself in the second half. Siân Roberts is both the Sandman and Dew Fairy, a milkwoman who offers up milk to the kids then later offers the witch an axe, with a sweet voice I found rather charming.  

Photo credit Matthew Williams Ellis

The real joy comes in the Evening Prayer and Pantomime in the opera, as the siblings realise they are lost in the woods and will have to get some kip. The singing here shines thanks to the hushed leads, if a little more push might have really sold it. The miners seen here are Corws Y Plant, later the children who escape the clutches of the witch. They have a sort of night ritual surrounding the children, though the blocking of this moment leading up to it is flat. At the end they too get to sing and have a jolly old time, joining in with the absurd, retro dance moves seen at the start of the evening. 

You can never go wrong with this one hit wonder from Humperdinck. It remains endlessly charming. 

Mid Wales Opera’s latest production will be Berlioz’s Beatrice & Benedict on tour around Wales in autumn 2023. 

Photo credit Matthew Williams Ellis

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