As Mid Wales Opera’s take on Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel came to a close, there was no other conclusion available other than to think this was a job supremely well done by all involved. Every aspect of Mid Wales Opera’s production clicked into place, resulting in a delightfully entertaining and visually arresting show.
Gone are the trappings of medieval Germany one might typically expect in a performance based on the Brothers Grimm classic. Instead, Richard Studer has transposed the fairy tale is to a deprived town, where the remains of a colliery loom over the home of the titular characters, and the trees of the forest are composed of crooked and stark steel. Each configuration of the set is visually arresting, and some charming surprises are delivered along the way. Hansel and Gretel are positioned as the ‘left behind’ victims of deindustrialisation. Father (Phillip Smith) is presumably a relic of the colliery (a lifelong miner taking the odd job here and there to get by), and Mother (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones) is a miserable housewife, ground down by life. Hansel (Charlotte Badham) and Gretel (Alys Mererid Roberts are bored, hungry children blindly watching TV to get through the day.
Despite the intended misery (and contemporary nature) of the setting, there’s no attempt dilute the charm, humour, and hilarious brutality of the original fairy tale. This is still Hansel and Gretel as you know it. Roberts and Badham have delightful chemistry together as the tile characters, and are immensely convincing as a brother and sister pair Their vocal performances and choreography are splendid, and effortlessly childlike. Smith tra-la-las his way through the production (red-faced with beer can in hand) with great jollity. But special mention must be given to Afonwy-Jones, who doubles up as the grisly witch of the woods in the second act.
The second act explodes with frenetic energy, thanks to Afonwy-Jones’s wonderful performance as the witch. She is both hilarious and genuinely horrific in her get up as an exaggerated homemaker (imagine a murderous Julia Child). Forget broomsticks and magic wands, this witch is armed with a sinister whisk and a wonderfully ridiculous, smoke bellowing oven (except it is not cakes she is baking in there). It really is a rollercoaster full of fun and energy (not to mention the flying limbs). There’s an obvious and unsubtle allegory to the performance which I did not find particularly convincing, making the Witch Margaret Thatcher, the milk snatcher in 1971. However, it is not obtrusive in the slightest and comes at no detriment to the overall production. Everything here stands on its own terms.
The chorus and other cameo roles are delivered excellently, and Ensemble Cymru conducted by Jonathan Lyness makes its presence felt impressively. There’s an impressive flow to the music that carries the production forward at all times, never stalling in pace, while respecting and complimenting each of the vocal performances. Mid Wales Opera have delivered a fantastic and captivating show that is completely deserving of success.