Composer: Engelbert Humperdinck
Adapter/Director: John Savournin
Whistle Stop Opera has been a project of Opera North for some time. The idea is to take popular operas to unlikely places in versions adapted by John Savournin and running only some 40 minutes, with a cast of three or four and the stylish and adept accordion accompaniment of Milos Milivojevic. It is clearly well suited to bringing back live performance at this time: if you can do an opera in a pub or a museum, you can do it in the courtyard or carpark outside.
This production of Hansel and Gretel, receiving its first performance at Slung Low in Holbeck, is thus more than welcome. Savournin typically doesn’t just give us a truncated version of the opera, but re-casts it in a different narrative form. At the beginning he enters as the Sandman, with the sleep-inducing aria normally sung by a soprano in Act 2. The Sandman is to be our narrator, the last to leave the acting area with the same haunting melody.
The decision to pitch the adaptation to the children in the audience works well in many ways, but is a mixed blessing. The amiable Savournin gets instant response from the children and even succeeds in persuading most of the adults in the audience to join in Hansel and Gretel’s dance, while the pretence of the performers being audience volunteers benefits enormously from Jennifer Clark’s and Laura Kelly-McInroy’s naturalness.
However, so much time is spent on asking the audience what beasts they might find in the forest or what sweets could make up the gingerbread house that, in a 40-minute version, we don’t get enough of Humperdinck’s wonderful music. Savournin’s spoken interruptions make the plot clear, but militate against the flow of the music.
For all that, this is a very pleasant way to spend 40 minutes outside, seated at a safe distance from your neighbour. The rough and tumble that goes along with the magic in Humperdinck’s opera is severely reduced by distancing and the lack of a set, but so energetic and communicative are Clark and Kelly-McInroy that one hardly notices.
And vocally the performance is way above what you would expect from four singers in a carpark in variable weather with nothing but an open tent and a chair. The first notes of the two “volunteers” produce a real sense of excitement: Jennifer Clark silver-voiced as Gretel, Laura Kelly-McInroy superbly expressive as Hansel. Clare Pascoe makes a brief, fierce appearance as Mother before going deliciously over the top as the Witch. Savournin himself, when not chatting to the kids, brings winningly legato phrasing to the Sandman.
If cut back, most of the great set-pieces are put over well – and the joking and audience participation fall silent as Clark and Kelly-McInroy deliver a beautifully restrained reading of the sublime Evening Prayer.
Touring the North of England until September 5th 2020