Adelheid Wette and Engelbert Humperdinck Royal Northern College of Music RNCM Theatre 17 March 2018 to 25 March 2018
The RNCM offers an imaginative take on Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘fairytale opera’: it’s an all-too-realistic episode in the life of two Manchester children circa 1893 (the date of the original).
Director Stephen Medcalf and designer Yannis Thavoris have however kept the storyline remarkably close to their model. The parents are poor and father’s a drunk: they throw their children out to fend for themselves because they have nothing to give them. The difference is that the kids go wandering in an urban nightscape of gas lamps (instead of a forest), and they find a magical sweets and pastry shop (rather than a gingerbread house), whose proprietor (aka the Witch) has a back room which is a half-as-big-again version of their own home. Danger lurks, of course, but they outwit the wicked Witch, pushing her into her own oven, and thus provide loads of gingerbread for a host of previously enchanted children to eat.
It’s a dream, I guess – beginning after they sing their glorious little prayer before they slumber – and the lesson from a sampler on the wall of their home, that ‘When in need or dark despair, God will always hear your prayer’, finally proves a true one.
Medcalf and Thavoris provide many artful touches, such as the gaslamp lighters with glimmering ends to their poles like glow-worms, who later turn into guardian angels (as we see from woolly wings sewn on their backs), and the Dew Fairy as a morning milkman from ‘Dew Farm Dairy’. The magnified home inside the Witch’s lair is a superb idea and brilliantly achieved.
I wouldn’t have realised it was meant to be specifically the Manchester of 1893 we were seeing if I hadn’t read the press release, but that didn’t matter. I liked it a lot, and the cast I heard sing – with Fiona Finsbury as Gretel and Rebecca Barry as Hansel – offered two of the outstanding voices from last December’s Cendrillon in this piece’s principal roles – only this time acting children very convincingly and doing some great movement and dance steps (choreographer is Bethan Rhys Wiliam). The others were top-notch, too. The opera is sung in a recent English translation, and enough of the lines come over to make any visual assistance unnecessary. Anthony Kraus conducts the RNCM Opera Orchestra in a reduced but still sumptuous version of the score, and the whole thing is a delight.