Sunday, June 10, 2018

A delectable children's treat returns with Victorian Opera's delightful Hansel and Gretel

You know you’re engaging your young audience when they’re both attentive and interactive at a performance. “Why are they cuddling?”, “What kind of spell is it?”, the boy behind me uttered with inquisitiveness. Gleefully interruptive and unfiltered, but endearingly so, children were entertained with the art of opera boiled down to their level in a revival of Victorian Opera’s delectable 2014 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera, Hansel and Gretel.

Cleo Lee-McGowan as Gretel and Shakira Dugan as Hansel
Elizabeth Hill’s lively direction melded excitingly on an easy to follow 50-minute condensed version of Humperdinck’s score more than double that length. Generating the drama, Humperdinck’s beautiful tapestry of effervescent melodies, musical landscapes and darker interjections that characterise the work were delightfully realised by conductor Simon Bruckard in leading a 14-strong contingent of musicians making up the Victorian Opera Chamber Ensemble in the Playhouse Theatre pit. Not a note appeared to drift off course and the warmth and care of playing provided thoughtful support for the stage.

Roller-mounted partitions painted with an interior picture-book representation of Hansel and Gretel’s house, the nearby woods and inside the witch’s gingerbread house looked a treat in Ross Hall’s context-effective designs with beautifully detailed folksy Germanic costumes completing the fairy-tale aesthetic. Peter Darby’s backdrop of mood-varying pin lighting and shadowy effects were especially evocative. A small quibble but just one thing I craved for, colourfully candied as the witch’s cottage was, were bigger helpings of them in the form of a more enticing gingerbread cottage than the flat wall it was. Still, the witch’s candy-camouflaging cloak added a clever sense of trepidation when Hansel and Gretel happen upon the cottage.

It wouldn’t have mattered if it was sung in English or Swahili as the young cast of eight familiar developing artists on the local opera scene brought Adelheid Wette’s German libretto to sparkling life with aplomb. And with a family of four all enjoying an opportunity to dance, and competently too, the little household captivated.

Kirilie Blythman as Mother and Stephen Marsh as Father
Deliciously creamy mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan was perfect as a scallywag of a Hansel, impressing with her top notes and toasty vibrato. Lithe and full of expression, sweet and pure soprano Cleo Lee-McGowan sparkled as a sensible blonde pigtailed Gretel. Together, Dugan and Lee-McGowan offset sibling contrasts adorably along their rocky adventure, coming together for their divinely sung evening prayers and in a lovely balanced duet highlight as they celebrate their victory over the Witch. 

Lush-voiced Kirilie Blythman effortlessly took to the initially cranky but loving Mother and as an amiable Father, Stephen Marsh’s mellow and firmly buttressed baritone came with usual polish. The evil act of baking children into gingerbread was carried out by a Weimar cabaret-inspired Witch who Tomas Dalton rendered with largesse.

Smaller roles were filled pleasingly by Douglas Kelly as a rustic Sandman, Michelle McCarthy as a striking Dew Fairy with Matthew Thomas who, as all but the titular leads of the cast did singing dual roles for children and angels, sang robustly as an Angel and Child. Despite the sound voices, what felt missing was a real chorus of children who would certainly have convinced the young critics in the audience. Nevertheless, Victorian Opera do a remarkable job in stimulating the creative heart of and educating children in the art of opera. 

Two children’ operas have already now been presented this 2018 season - a wonderful revival of The Magic Pudding having opened the season. Adult entertainment is only now in rehearsal for the bigger fare when Rossini’s William Tell takes the Palais Theatre stage in July. That’s what Melbourne’s avid opera goers are patiently waiting for.

Hansel and Gretel
Victorian Opera
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 12th June

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross 

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