Unknown but for this opera (except for the Anglo-Indian 1960s pop singer who borrowed his name) Engelbert Humperdinck was a protege of Wagner, and even helped him with the first production of Parisfal. Wagnerian elements of structure and orchestration are evident from the extended overture or prelude to Hansel and Gretel, expertly played by the Queensland Orchestra under David Stanhope. All the familiar leitmotiv are there (or as Wagner would have it, “Grundthema”) including the beautiful “Evening Prayer”.
The dark and menacing shapes on the curtain evoking the Black Forest give way to a plain 20th Century kitchen where Hansel and Gretel labour briefly at their homework but quickly turn to teasing and pranks to distract them from their hunger pangs. Thus the traditional Grimm Brothers tale is given modern tweaks in a version which very much emphasises the energetic and naughty kid aspects of H & G while including all the traditional elements as they begin their frightening adventure.
Caitlin Hulcup as Hansel and Amy Wilkinson as Gretel play the children with exuberance and with such conviction that it is easy to forget they are not in fact pre-teen kids. Their voices are strong and sure, complementing and harmonising very satisfyingly.
Also in top voice is Rosemarie Arthars as the witch, who becomes a frenzied and entertaining centre of attention from the moment of her abduction of the children, yielding some moments highly charged with drama and excitement.
The familiar story is played out with a host of dazzling production elements where the talents of designer Mark Thompson, lighting designer Nigel Levings and directors Elijah Moshinsky and Julie Edwardson come together with some wonderful and unexpected effects and sequences. Apart from an exploding oven, mystical dream sequences and dazzling magic, there are Lewis Carroll elements in the sets, with enormous floorboards, clock and balustrades (as if the kids had been shrunk in their own home rather than going into the woods), while the finale of the celebrating children evokes Peter Pan.
Adding to the performance are the singing and characterisations of parents Jacqueline Mabardi and Henry Ruhl as well as Dew Fairy Rachael Cunningham, and the wonderful contribution of the Children’s Chorus, so well prepared by Narelle French.
A little more dance would have been nice, especially by the principals in their big Act 1 dance number, and it’s a shame Gretel remains so needlessly dowdy throughout. Hansel, by contrast, is reminiscent of an heroic Harry Potter.
The Southbank Conservatorium is the venue for this production, to which it lends itself beautifully, with crystal clear sound. It is fitting that this opera is performed in an Australian conservatorium, for Humperdinck almost became director of the Sydney Con. Sadly, the outbreak of war in 1914 put an end to this prospect, and Humperdinck joins Ravel and Schonberg as Aussie Conservatorium might-have-beens.