After nearly thirty years of regular opera-going it's getting rarer for me to encounter a work I haven't previously seen or heard. But this was one such occasion. In advance, I wasn't expecting a great deal - one of the reasons I hadn't previously heard this work was that family opinion towards it was not favourable. But it seems to me if done in the right spirit, as this performance unquestionably was, it's a piece which is a lot of fun.
The opera is a concise rendering in three short acts of the familiar fairy tale, ending up with the witch vanquished by being shoved into her own oven - in principle a fairly gruesome moment but not one on which the work dwells. There are clear Wagnerian overtones to the score, and I also thought anticipations of some of the natural world elements of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. But I rather like those sound worlds, so this didn't bother me. The score has a nice range from fun (particularly in the witch's music), to beauty (Sandman/Dew Fairy) and drama (the Witch's Ride) - all of which were brought vividly to life by the RSNO in fine form, under the expert dramatic command of Andrew Davis.
Concert opera always benefits when the soloists are off-score and this was one of those occasions. Davis and/or the Festival had also assembled a very strong line up of soloists. Elizabeth DeShong's Hansel and Laura Wilde's Gretel both sang with power and beauty and their voices were effectively complimentary. Tomasz Konieczkny brought ringing heft to the role of Father, Emily Birsan beauty to the doubling of Sandman and Dew Fairy, and Thomas Blondelle gave a strongly characterised, capering Witch. There was fine supporting work as the ghostly children from the NYCoS National Girls Choir. Just occasionally, from my usual perch in the Upper Circle, I thought Davis let the orchestra slightly swamp the soloists but this was a minor issue.
I'm perfectly prepared to concede this isn't a work of the first rank. But done with such a fine line up and with this kind of feeling for the dramatic there are many lovely moments, and the whole thing is just rather a hoot. Overall, a really enjoyable evening.
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