Festival Opera

Hansel & Gretel

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

BY the time Hansel & Gretel (Elizabeth DeShong and Laura Wilde) appeared to spot the gingerbread house at the back of the Usher Hall stalls at the start of Act III of Humperdinck’s tune-packed fairytale, the fact that this was a concert performance was a minor hindrance to full enjoyment of the opera for anyone with an imagination. And we had yet to meet the show-stopping Witch of Thomas Blondelle. If the Belgian tenor doesn’t have his own Fringe show next year, no entrepreneur in Edinburgh has been paying attention.

Actually, a smart opera producer would snap up this entire company, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, NYCoS National Girls Choir, Sir Andrew Davies and all, because their contributions consistently matched those of a gob-smacking line-up of soloists every step of the way.

The work was the conductor’s choice to follow his acclaimed partnership with Scotland’s national orchestra for Wagner’s Walkure last year, and there are certainly similarities in the music and the way the composer handles his gift for a memorable tune, with first horn Chris Gough and his section in pole position at the start of the work and after the interval. At the front of the stage the summer-frocked Wilde and boyish swagger of DeShong were a brilliant double act, mirrored by Okka von der Damerau and superb Polish bass Tomasz Konieczkny as their parents, giving animated physical performances that brought the story vividly to life just as assuredly as they gave the clever vocal writing, mimicking, bickering and interrupting one another, the fullest possible expression.

The cast completed by American soprano Emily Birsan, who winningly swapped ballgowns between the two small roles of Sandman and Dew Fairy, it was Blondelle who nearly stole the show, with a panto dame performance and props of a pointy hat and the conductor’s baton Sir Andrew wasn’t using as his magic wand. As for Christopher Bell’s chorus cohort of young women, they were, as we know to expect, immaculate.