29 June 2014

Victorian Opera: Hansel and Gretel

Victorian Opera
Arts Centre Melbourne
Saturday 21 June 2014

This Hansel and Gretel had been subject to a celestial staffing efficiency dividend. The 14 non-singing angels had been reduced to three and asked to double as spell-bound children where they did sing – like angels. The sets budget was measured in dollars rather than Met-style millions – and most of that was gobbled up by liquorice allsorts for the gingerbread house. The 13-strong pit orchestra had been herded into the back corner of the tiny stage where they peered out from behind the mini -flats. The oven, into which the witch was propelled with a swift kick in the arse, was a break-away cloth painted with angry red flames. It was 100% make-believe on a shoestring.

The Sandman: superb!
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The production worked for just that reason: ‘suspend belief, it’s a fairy tale’. And the kids did just that; if they were half-smart, so did the grannies.

The other factor, that which may have escaped the grandchildren but was none-the-less critical to the success of this production, was that the music production was high-standard professional.

The six strings, five woods and two brass were tuned to a razor edge even before the oboe’s A. The orchestra was essential to the colour of this opera and this little band provided it. The bassoon, in particular, was splendid: rich and mellow and with just hints of menace. The singers were clearly confident that Fabian Russell’s band would give them the bedrock they could rely on.

Sibling rivalry - German-style
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The singers themselves were immediate-past or present Master of Music students – a testament to their selection and the quality of work they’d got through in less than six months. They were superb!

As Sandman (dressed like a Sicilian spiv: that hat!), Michael Petrucelli’s voice had a beautiful, intriguing golden-sand quality that I’d not heard in a tenor-ish voice before. Cristina Russo’s Gretel was simply lovely: innocent and gentle even when she was beating up her brother.  Carlos E. Bárcenas (he’s an old hand now)  was a wonderful transgender(?) witch (certainly he had some pretty interesting boots for a lady!). Elizabeth Lewis and Nathan Lay acted and sang with the assurance and control we've come to expect from these opera singers: people who understand their part, can act it and can sing it. But for my money the stand-out voice was Emma Muir-Smith as Hansel in the lederhosen role. Her singing was just brilliant. Hers (his?) is a voice to watch. And Hänsel und Gretel together with that sensitive, expert orchestra gave us the most beautiful Abendsegen one could imagine; a three-hanky job. The singing was simple, unaffected and genuine.

This was cut down for length and staging but, as have been all VO’s ‘student’ operas/pantos, the quality of the music was never compromised. Sung in German? Still the action was easily followed without surtitles because the acting was spot-on without being melodramatic.

And, as a bonus, the students (they don’t sound student-like or inexperienced) now have a German role on their CV to sell.
Simply brilliant!

There's no such thing as a free gingerbread house. 
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