When the two original founders of Grange Park Opera went their separate ways, the music world collectively held its breath.
The charismatic Wasfi Kani decided to start again and build a brand new opera house from scratch. I can report that it is a huge success, and in its new, idyllic, setting it offers top class productions such as this year’s Hansel & Gretel.
There can be no better way to appreciate world class music on a summer’s evening than Grange Park Opera.
Ms Kani is a giant of the London music scene, famed for her address book, and her fundraising talents. I was warned not to take my wallet to any meeting with her.
When looking for a new venue she turned to none other than Bamber Gascoigne.
Bamber Gascoigne will be familiar to older readers as the face of University Challenge for 20 years or so.
His catchphrase “starter for ten” entered the English language.
Bamber was lucky enough to have a wealthy aunt, a Duchess no less, who left him a wonderful mansion and gardens that Grange Park Opera now has as its new home.
The opera company has only been around for three years, but the purpose-built house, and the new productions, are both top notch.
The new house itself has been criticised for its stripped back, Scandinavian design. But what does that matter when it has superb acoustics, and excellent facilities? And those who bring their own picnic have the most glorious gardens to enjoy.
The opera Hansel & Gretel is a very little known work. The composer, Engelbert Humperdinck, was a pupil of Wagner. It might be more accurate to say a ‘doting disciple,’ who lived with the Wagner family.
I strained hard to hear any echoes of the master, but this is certainly not an opera for Wagner lovers.
Based on the Grimm fairytale of the same name, it comes from a period when the Germans were turning away from Wagner and towards opera that was easier to digest. Not only is the subject light, but it is a very short work.
The picnic interval is as long as acts one and two put together.
Hansel & Gretel are both extremely well sung by Caitlin Hulcup and Soraya Mofi. They both give superb performances as the two hapless children.
The first two acts outline their mundane, food-starved existence, in a poverty stricken room. Susan Bullock sings their mother, and William Dazely their drunken father.
For some reason the director, Stephan Medcalf, choses to introduce a strong sexual element in their relationship, which is not in the original work, and seems out of place in this children’s tale.
He also has the children picking pockets at one point. The brothers Grimm must be turning in their graves.
By the interval of Hansel & Gretel the audience are always desperate for the witch to make her entry, and this production is no exception. Helped on by a few good bottles, they roared their approval at Grange Park.
The witch is a comedy role, which requires the singer to ‘camp it up’.
Susan Bullock (playing this role as well as the mother as tradition demands) did not disappoint. This made for an evening very much of two halves, acts one and two being a prelude, while act three was a tremendous triumph. This was also true in the design.
In the first half, everything was very stark. One moment a series of Victorian lamp posts represented the streets in the town the children wander through. The next they (unconvincingly) double up as trees in the forest they get lost in.
Far more successful was act three’s portrayal of the witch’s house as a glorious sweatshop. Though once inside we have a scaled-up version of the children’s own home, we hoped we’d said goodbye to all the nonsense with the ovens, and the ginger bread is very well done.
English National Opera’s orchestra brought out all that there is in Humperdinck’s music under the nurturing baton of conductor George Jackson.
All in all, a very pleasant evening, and a great way to treat someone who’s a music lover.
Hansel & Gretel plays at Grange Park Opera until July 10 https://grangeparkopera.co.uk/whats-on