Thursday, 20 September 2018

Review: Fairy tale opera is utterly enchanting

EVERYTHING about the Garsington experience screams class.

EVERYTHING about the Garsington experience screams class.

There is the Wormsley estate itself, former home of Sir John Paul Getty, with a one-and-a-half mile drive that twists and turns through a lush valley dotted with sheep.

There is the dining experience — a choice of a three-course dinner in a Jamie Oliver’s Fabulous Feasts marquee, or a bring-your-own picnic in a communal tent where ladies in silk gowns sip champagne by the light of their candelabras.

And there is, of course, the pavilion itself. Terry Wogan, Garsington Opera patron and our host for the evening, had described it as a pop-up auditorium which was an understatement if ever I heard one.

In fact this bare-boned glass and metal structure rises from the meadow beside the lake like a 21st century temple to the goddess of culture.

But above all, it is the inside of the pavilion with its magical stage set and the quality of the production itself that makes this such an unforgettable evening.

You can’t beat a Grimms’ fairy tale for a good yarn, and this staging of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel Und Gretel was quite simply a delight, with its familiar storyline and beautiful melodies. Director Olivia Fuchs made sure we didn’t ever forget this was a fairy tale, either — a giant cloth book covered the stage floor and at the beginning of each act a page was turned and a house popped up as if by magic.

Five dancers in black suits and bowler hats watched over the action, sometimes as menacing doom-mongers and at other times as protective angels.

As they flitted among the silver birch forest that lined the stage, they lent an eerie foreboding to the atmosphere.

Humperdinck was a contemporary of Richard Strauss and Wagner, so this opera is very much in the German tradition, with a no-nonsense Christian message and an upbeat ending, but the reason it has survived more than 120 years is quite simply because of the music.

Based on German folk tunes, many of the arias are very pretty tunes. But there are also some stunning duets between our eponymous heroes, and Hänsel played by mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle and Gretel played by soprano Anna Devin were not only sublime singers but also consummate actors.

I said the whole Garsington experience screams class, but of course class doesn’t scream, it intones sotto voce with supreme eloquence, and that is probably a better way to describe an evening at Wormsley.

If you like opera I urge you to dig deep into your pocket and go. It is an operatic event like no other.

Lesley Potter

Hänsel Und Gretel

Garsington Opera

Thursday, June 27

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