Victorian Opera has a long and proud tradition of providing high quality opera to appeal to the younger members of Melbourne’s cultural community. Nurturing the next generation of opera lovers was close to the heart of founder Richard Gill, and current artistic director of Victorian Opera, Richard Mills has continued the tradition in fine style.
This year the offering for the younger fry (and those of us who are allowed to come with them) is Humperdinck’s classic, Hansel and Gretel. This is an ideal choice, as the story is familiar to young audiences and their parents and grandparents, and the music is eminently suitable to be sung by young opera singers without doing damage to their still developing instruments.
Director Elizabeth Hill has staged the opera in German, with “scene descriptors” displayed on the walls at the side of the stage. While not being surtitles that tell us exactly what is going on, there is a basic description of what is happening in each scene so nobody gets lost. This also has the advantage of the audience focusing on what’s happening on stage, and enjoying the sound of something sung in another language, rather than being glued to surtitles. And the basic story is a familiar one for most audience members, so this approach works rather well.
As one might expect from a group of emerging professional singers, the vocal standard is a little uneven but that matters not one whit, as what all cast members have in common is the ability to live their characters and tell their story through song and movement to the audience. Costumes are colourful and attractive, and make it obvious who is which character.
The standard of acting is very impressive, with everyone on stage believing in what they are doing, which means the audience is swept along with them. Acting honours certainly go to Tomas Dalton as an impressively scary witch, whose make-up must have come straight from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert– but it works like a charm.
Congratulations to all the cast who give 100 per cent, but there are a few voices which especially moved me. Young tenor Douglas Kelly is an ideal choice for the gentle role of The Sandman, his attractive voice coping easily with the music he is given. Stephen Marsh impressed me in his last outing with Victorian Opera as Benjamin in The Magic Pudding. This is a resonant and unforced baritone with the exciting promise of future depth and glory, as long as he looks after it and lets it develop—definitely a singer to watch in the future.
Cleo Lee-McGowan is a delightful girlish Gretel, with a sweetness of tone that suits the role. And the standout for me was Shakira Dugan as Hansel – here is a mezzo-soprano with a glorious natural warm tone and a fine actor to boot, with natural stage charisma. I suspect we will hear much of this fine young singer in the coming years.
Simon Bruckard is a sure hand with the baton as he conducts his excellent chamber orchestra.
Well done, Victorian Opera – this Hansel and Gretel is a charmer.
Julie Houghton reviewed the opening performance of Hansel and Gretel at the Playhouse. For details of its short season, including in schools, go to Victorian Opera’s website.