Opera review: Hansel & Gretel, St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane

For its premiere full-scale opera, Voxalis’ 'Hansel and Gretel' offered a well-crafted and entertaining production. 
Three opera singers on a stage in front of a set depicting a candy house. A young woman plays a boy, in the middle a man in Japanese attire is in drag as a witch and on the right a woman plays a young girl. Hansel & Gretel.

Voxalis Opera was established in Brisbane in 2021 by co-founders and producers, Matthew Schwarz and Camilo Lόpez. Over the past two years, the company has produced a range of diverse and thoughtfully curated concert performances. Now, with generous support from donors and sponsors and an ever-growing audience base, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel has been chosen to be its first fully-staged operatic production.

Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the title, this timeless moral tale shows a poor family, whose children, the siblings Hansel and Gretel, are sent to collect berries for supper in the nearby woods. Here they enter a magical world of adventures, including meeting a wicked witch who tries to eat them. As in all good fairy stories, there is a happy ending.  

Comprising three acts, the opera was given minimal staging within the church setting of St Andrews. Act 1 The Hut, where Hansel and Gretel live with their parents, was represented by screens and boxes, a table and chairs. The woods surrounding the cottage were brought in closer for Act 2, while in Act 3 the Wicked Witch’s candy-covered cottage was colourfully recreated with painted boxes and balloons, a visual feast after the first two acts. 

Director Lois Redman used this space to great effect with her cast making entrances and exits through the aisles, from the sides and back of the stage area and, in the case of the Father and Dew Fairy, utilising the back stairs of the church, which allowed their voices to soar. The overall staging was effective, its clear and faithful adherence to Humperdinck’s score helping to bring the narrative to life. Lighting was fairly basic with side lamps, footlights and some back lighting in the forest. However, atmospheric effects in the dusk and dawn scenes, as well as in the forest, were creatively reflected in the haunting music.  

Redman was assisted by first-class musical direction from repetiteur, Mark Connors. Humperdinck’s score is Wagnerian in its breadth and richness of orchestration. Without the resources of orchestral accompaniment, realising this complex score on piano alone was challenging. Connors utilised the piano reduction written by the composer to preserve the integrity of the opera, while skilfully adapting it to suit this production. He played from two scores, the original and his adapted version, no mean achievement, which he managed with astonishing dexterity and aplomb. Sung in English, with added surtitles, the libretto was also adapted from multiple English translations to offer a contemporary resonance. The revitalised libretto and musical accompaniment made for an accessible realisation of this much-loved work for a modern day audience.           

The vocal requirements of the score are not to be underestimated and the singers were for the most part impressively cast, singing their roles with passion and commitment. All of them either trained, or are about to complete their training, at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, which demonstrated the abundance of local operatic talent.    

As the characters are onstage for almost the entire opera, the roles of Hansel and Gretel are huge and were played with great energy by Sabrina Wall and Sarah Hubbard respectively. Here were two bickering young children, easily tempted away from their domestic chores to play, dance and sing, despite being hungry. Wall’s Hansel was every bit a boy, petulant, boisterous, ready to fight or argue and always hungry, though a more dishevelled look would have assisted in creating the character.

Hubbard’s Gretel was the elder, more sensible sibling, chiding her brother and encouraging good behaviour. Stereotypes perhaps, but they made a highly credible pair who, when the chips were down, looked out for each other as family does. Hubbard has a strong and rich soprano, hitting her top notes well and was excellent on stage. At times, her diction was difficult to hear but, overall, she sang impressively. Wall’s Hansel was delightfully presented, her character well fleshed out and helping to drive the narrative. She has a creamy mezzo with excellent diction. Unfortunately, the blend of their two voices did not offer quite enough variation between high soprano and darker, richer mezzo. This was particularly noticeable in their harmonies in the dance duet in Act 1 and in the gorgeous evening prayer in Act 2, when their voices seemed to merge rather than being distinctive.        

Dominique Fegan’s Mother was suitably angry and then remorseful at her treatment of her children. It is often a thankless role, but Fegan brought some grit and vocal power to her delivery with strong ringing top notes, enough to truly frighten Hansel and Gretel. Cameron Bodiam Taylor made a powerful Father figure, his impressive baritone filling the resonant acoustics of the church. Vocally first-rate and technically rock solid throughout his range, he was particularly fine when singing about the dangers of the woods and the Witch that lived there. 

Tenor, Iain Henderson, played the Witch in drag – his red and black silk dress and black wig making the character appear strange and grotesque, but also very funny. Vocally, he has a powerful ringing tenor that added credence to this role and was both frightening as well as humorous. It was easy for the children to run rings around him though. Annika Hinrichs made a lovely Sandman, complete with dressing gown and night cap, then reappearing as a glittering Dew Fairy to awaken the children. Singing well, her soprano rose easily to display shimmering top notes.              

The chorus of three sopranos, Gianna Guttilla, Tashana Hardy and Kira Dooner, and two mezzo-sopranos, Xanthe Allen and Aylish Ryan, were well used in multiple roles. They appeared as masked animals and vocal echoes eerily fliting from tree to tree in the wooded background in Act 2. They became the evocative Angels in the dreamlike pantomime at the end of the act, and finally played the children released from imprisonment by the Witch at the end of the opera. It was a great use of their respective talents with some strong singing.  

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Overall, this was a polished and well-presented production, with a strong directorial hand and a fine cast of singers, which proved to be eminently accessible and joyous to watch.  

Voxalis Opera presented Hansel & Gretel
By Engelbert Humperdinck 
Producers: Matthew Schwarz and Camilo Lόpez  
Director: Lois Redman
Repetiteur and Music Director: Mark Connors 
Production Assistants: Liam Jackson, Isabelle Markham, Lauren Towns, Freddie Klein and Ji Zhang
Cast: Sabrina Wall, Sarah Hubbard, Dominique Fegan, Cameron Bodiam Taylor, Annika Hinrichs, Iain Henderson
Chorus of animals, echoes, angels and children: Gianna Guttilla, Tashana Hardy, Kira Dooner, Xanthe Allen, Aylish Ryan  

Hansel & Gretel was performed 12-13 April in St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane. Information on Voxalis’ 2024 season can be found here.

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals. Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.