Hansel und Gretel

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Those fortunate enough to be in the few distanced audience seats for one of the four performances of Stephen Lawless’s captivating production of Humperdinck’s dark Yuletide confection can count themselves very lucky indeed.

The first live show for a present audience from the Conservatoire’s opera department in nearly two years ropes in many students and younger people from elsewhere in the institution to deliver a version of the story that is full of resonant contemporary detail and slapstick panto fun. It is also superbly sung by everyone involved, and played (in Derek Clark’s reduced orchestration) by a pit band under Adam Hickox – every bit the showcase for young talent across all disciplines that it should be.

The promise of what is to come is encapsulated in designer Adrian Linford’s front-cloth: a German Christmas card of a canal-side scene that includes elements of the Glasgow skyline and a pastiche of Banksy’s graffiti art, sweeping a dead robin out of sight. The whole show is bracketed by the shuffle of a paper-cup carrying pan-handler across the stage – his return at the end, as the reunited family prepare to tuck into a meal of roast Witch, is the sting in the tale.

The Mother here, sung by Lindsay Grace Johnson on opening night, is a harassed NHS worker, struggling to feed her children in a damp-walled flat. “Lord God, send us money, I’ve nothing to live on,” as the surtitles have it, seems pertinently apt. The Witch – tenor Cameron Mitchell, in pink-wigged buxom drag, is TV chef Rosina Leckermaul, promoting her new book, Kochen mit Kindren (Cooking with Children).

The Sandman – a lovely clear-toned Karla Grant – presides over a tableau vivant Nativity that could be the one that can be seen in the city’s George Square but is rather more beautiful, while the Dew Fairy (Marie Cayeux) guzzles shots in a spangly gold mini-dress, having lost a shoe, dragging a traffic cone.

While far from lavish, the staging is full of meaningful detail in every scene, from home with its coin electricity meter and school portraits, through the woods and the gingerbread house, to the Witch’s lair – half TV studio kitchen, half butchering operating theatre. There were a couple of accidental prop mishaps and some sticky and noisy scene-changing on the first night, but all were professionally coped with.

German mezzo Ascelina Klee has a huge voice which sometimes disturbed the balance on stage, but she and Spanish soprano Elena Garrido Madrona are a winning partnership as Hansel and Gretel in performances full of compatible physicality. The role of Father is also double-cast and Jonathan Forbes Kennedy brought a nice bonhomie to counterpoint the grim reality elsewhere.

With an onstage Salvation Army band opening the score, some fine solo playing as well as ensemble from the orchestra, and the women’s chorus singing from the circle in Act 3, the production is full of musical riches as well. If the pandemic rule changes have made it possible for the RCS to release more seats for sale for the second half of its short run, this is a show not to miss.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Robert McFadzean