Pop-Up Opera’s Hansel and Gretel, at the V&A Museum of Childhood (review)

Pop-Up Opera is an opera company that wishes to make opera more accessible to those of us who do not traditionally go to see it. One of their methods is to perform at unusual, less formal venues. Their current tour of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel takes in some very interesting locations, none of which are traditional opera houses. The press night this week took place at the V&A Museum of Childhood – and the run ends next month at the V&A proper in Kensington.

Pop-Up Opera - Hansel and Gretel

Photographer Credit: Robert Workman

Hansel and Gretel the opera, is the most famous work by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the one that is known for his easy-listening ballads in the 1960s) and is loosely based on the fairytale written by the Brothers Grimm. The scene is set, minimally, in the main foyer of the museum, and temptingly close to the exhibits and glass cabinets of toys through the ages, which are closed for the day. Two screens to the right and left are there to show surtitles, as the opera is sung in German.  The surtitles provide a surprise element of fun as captions writer Harry Percival does not attempt to translate everything and, more than that, he comes up with some cheeky up to date references and colloquialisms. For instance, when Hansel and Gretel are scolded and sent out into the forest to collect berries, the caption says ‘Got bare raspberries innit!’  There are just enough of these moments to remain comical and not annoying.

With the combination of the synopsis and ‘useful German’ glossary in the programme, the surtitles and the acting, it is mostly easy to follow the plot, and where there are a few surreal moments (and sometimes no surtitles) it is enough to enjoy the music and the glorious singing without needing to understand German.  Hansel (Polly Leech) and Gretel (Sofia Larsson) play the siblings playfully and with much verve. They are both facially quite fascinating to watch; when they are alone together in the forest as night falls, Hansel is visibly trembling with fear; they are both in real raptures when they stumble upon the Witch’s house made of sweets and get to gorge themselves on lollies. Ten out of ten for managing to get through so many chewy foamy sweets whilst singing! Throughout, the pianist/musical director Berrak Dyer accompanies the singing beautifully.  I also enjoyed Father (James Harrison) who comes home comedy-drunk after a successful day selling brooms, singing in his operatic German as he stumbles his way down from the first floor of the museum, carrying some cans of Stella Artois and a few groceries.

Pop-up Opera might be popping up in places where you would not expect to find authentic opera, but the quality of the singing and musicianship is by no means diminished. Setting it in a museum or a smaller venue gives the audience a greater connection with the performers, and Hansel and Gretel is a great introduction to opera for novices like me who don’t know where to start.  It is a joy to hear such singing and to see it performed up close. Having already enjoyed Silver Electra by the English Touring Opera this year, I am ready for my next opera-going experience.

hattydaze rating: ***/*****

I attended Hansel & Gretel at the V&A Museum of Childhood courtesy of a press ticket.  Pop-Up Opera is touring Hansel & Gretel until 19th November 2017. See the website for further details.

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