Hansel and Gretel review at V&A Museum of Childhood

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is full of catchy ditties and an easy-to-follow plot. It’s already one of the most accessible operas there is, but it’s made even more so in this stripped-back production from Pop-Up Opera.

As is their style they’re taking this scrappy, compact production around the country to venues including, for this performance, the V&A’s Museum of Childhood. It’s a suitably eerie fit for the Grimm tale: a vast Victorian museum after hours, full of glass cabinets stuffed with old toys – even if the voices of the five-strong cast get swallowed a little in the vaulted ceiling.

Polly Leech and Sofia Larsson play Hansel and Gretel manically and energetically, romping around the stage area like a couple of chaotic kids high on orange squash. Leech’s thick, penetrating mezzo-soprano is a particular highlight, and it pairs well with Larsson’s bright soprano, accompanied brilliantly by Berrak Dyer on the piano.

In her hairnet and overalls Ailsa Mainwaring is less gruesome witch and more overbearing dinnerlady but, whatever, it works. Her big grin alone is enough to make kids stay away.

Curt, colloquial subtitles shrink recitative into irreverent plot summaries, but as the production goes on these become increasingly obnoxious and self-satisfied, with ‘contemporary’ references irritatingly shoe-horned in. They’re part of Pop-Up Opera’s aesthetic, but very much an acquired taste.

Budget restraints mean that James Hurley’s production has had to cut the scene that sees 14 angels dance around the sleeping children in the middle of the forest, but Pop-Up Opera are as resourceful as ever and use the strength of the piece, and of their clear production, to make up for most shortcomings.

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