On taking our seats in the translucent opera pavilion we find the story already laid out before us in the form of a giant storybook covering the majority of the stage, open on Grimms’ title pages. With the first sweep of Martin Andre’s baton the set begins to come alive, five ‘angels’, who feel more menacing than reassuring, turn a page of the book onto the opening chapter, dramatically pulling out a giant pop-up house in the process. Niki Turner’s set is spectacular and ingenious; this elegant opening promises much to come.Hänsel (Claudia Huckle) and Gretel (Anna Devin) abound with youthful exuberance, are believable in their slight appearance which belies only their vast talent. Mutter and Vater stagger in, half cut and comical, the joke not lost on many as Father exclaims ‘Ja, ihr Reichen könnt euch laben!’ [Yes, you rich can feast yourselves!], not long before our hour and a half dinner interval for sunset picnicking in black tie.
Just as our siblings realize they’re lost in the woods and things start getting kind of creepy, the most perfectly timed thunderstorm had us wondering quite what is real and what illusion. A shiver of chill air sways the birch trees; a snarl of thunder welcomes the Sandman.Anna Devin’s soprano tumblings are as silvery as the spindly birches that forest the set, perfectly balanced by Huckle’s contra-soprano. Mum and Dad are a deliciously inappropriate hoot. No warts or crooked nose for this witch, with candy floss hair, peppermint stockings and dancing on giant sweets, it feels more Lewis Carroll than Brothers Grimm, and though colourful and entertaining we can’t help but wish for just a little more menace.
The supporting cast is excellent in Rhiannon Llewellyn’s eerie Sandman and Ruth Jenkins’ sugar sweet Dew Fairy, but the five omnipresent angels really make the piece. Loitering in the shadows in ominous intimidation, standing watchful and protective, or even shimmying in feather boas to the witch’s upbeat aria, the angels are the puppet masters of the action and the audience’s mood.The contribution of the Old Palace School and Trinity Boys Choirs was completely inspired. Frenzied storyboard freeze-frames that transform the set add excitement and intrigue, and as the captives are freed at the end, the show becomes truly triumphant.
Olivia Fuchs has delivered a classic children’s folk story set to beautiful music that literally leaps straight from the pages. Thrilling and enchanting, as a show it is exceptional, as an experience, unforgettable. Garsington Opera is the sublime and the ridiculous, and what an underrated combination that is.