Hansel & Gretel: A Fairytale Opera

Thu 15th – Fri 16th November 2012


Joshua Phillips

at 23:00 on 15th Nov 2012



Imagine, if you will, a gingerbread house, slathered in icing and those little edible ball-bearing things (they’re called drageés, in case you were wondering). It looks enticing enough, but the icing is thin, and the gingerbread doesn’t taste of very much. It’s not bad for a sweet, decorative treat, but it doesn’t really leave you hungering for more. And this is where the problem with this production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera lies.

To start off on a high note, one thing about which it is hard to complain is the orchestra. Rich, full and brassy, the orchestra is superb. The score that they perform is functional, if nothing else, turning from light and frivolous to dark and doom-laden as required, but without ever surprising or shedding new light upon an old story. That is not to say that it isn’t entertaining, of course, or to disparage the very fine rendition of it that the orchestra of OSO give.

If there is one area where it is possible to bring the orchestra to task on, it is that they somewhat overpower the singers. At times it is difficult to hear the voices of Hansel (Susanne Holmes) and Gretel (Lucy Goddard), whose mezzo-soprano and soprano (respectively) voices become drowned out, lost in crescendo after crescendo. One wonders if this is due to the nature of the auditorium. Whilst certainly an excellent concert hall, perhaps the Sheldonian simply wasn’t built for opera: maybe they would fare better in a purpose-built opera house. It is harder to give the other singers the benefit of the doubt, however, when one hears Joshua Copeland’s booming baritone ring out clearly through the auditorium.

It is just as well, then, that the work makes great use of visual comedy. One particularly memorable moment comes at the beginning of the work, when Hansel and Gretel duel, not with swords, but with heavy wooden chairs. This visual aesthetic is something from which Katya Zhylevich, playing the gleefully cackling and cavorting Witch, particularly benefits. Whilst her voice is equally lost amidst the brass and strings and percussion of the orchestra, she occupies the small stage, charging it with an intense, erotic energy that does not need to be expressed vocally.

This physicality, however, doesn’t quite make up for a set that is almost criminally small. Two flats, a table and some chairs. That’s it. It is not that this is any less than is necessary, but it feels slap-dash somewhat. This is probably not helped by the witch’s gingerbread house, which is no larger than one that you might see in the shops in December.

All of this adds up to no more than the sum of its parts. The production is certainly competent; that much cannot be disputed. However, it attempts nothing new, and it does not feel like it aspires to be more than just that: a safe, competent production of a story that everyone knows. To end where we started, it’s a solidly built gingerbread house, with very nice decorations, and quite a nice little sweet treat. It isn’t, however, something that leaves you wanting more.


James Fennemore

at 23:10 on 15th Nov 2012



If going to ‘Hansel and Gretel’ taught me anything, it’s that there’s not only one Engelbert Humperdinck. Whilst one of them is a 76 year old crooner and Eurovision flop, the other was a 19th-century German composer, who really knew how to throw together a score. The music is undoubtedly the highlight of this nice yet largely unexciting premier production by Opera Studio Oxford which suffers both artistically and commercially from woolly conceptualisation.

I’m not sure what ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is trying to be, or who it is for, or why the company decided to put it on. And I’m not sure they’re sure either. It’s not that it necessarily needed to do something different – director Kristina Selen warns against this in a brief introduction to the production in the programme. ‘I want that which is honest!’ she writes. Fine. But if the production isn’t going to reinvent the fairy-tale, or relocate it, or destabilise in some way what is a very familiar, well-worn story, then it at least needs to have some clarity. It wasn’t clear, for instance, whether it was being pitched at children, or adults, or both, lacking the multi-layered sophistication that is a part of all successful family shows. And there’s more to ‘telling the story’ than reshowing a familiar narrative. Selen’s reading of the play never really came across; the production simply remained a nice retelling, but lacked any particularly engaging application.

This may have been down at least in part to the inaudibility of much of the libretto; although all of the notes could be heard, it was often difficult to hear the exact words of what was being said. This was surely not down to the experienced (and very talented) singers, but an oversight in the way in which the production was staged. Whilst the Sheldonian has an excellent acoustic, and works marvellously for choral compositions, the fullness of the orchestra, which took up most of the theatre space, was too much for the individual words of the singers to penetrate.

This was saved from being too problematic by the brilliance of the players; they really did wonderfully at bringing out a great deal of character, charm and effervescence from Humperdinck’s rich and entertaining score. Tim Anderson, the musical director, brought the whole thing together magnificently, and the production was at its best when the orchestral music was allowed to take centre stage.

In a highly competitive week oozing with drama – and one in which the superlative 'A Little Night Music' is on at the Playhouse, at that – this production really needed to have a greater understanding of itself to do service to the excellent talent of its singers and musicians. That it lacked this conceptual clarity reflected in the very low number of audience members who had turned out to see it. But if the production itself doesn’t know who it’s for, then it really can’t expect the people of Oxford to either.


Audience Avg.

0 votes, 0 comments

Click here for more event information

cast involved

other events on

Version 0.3.7a