Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Beauty and bewilderment

25 February 2020

Tiffany Ha praises Hansel and Gretel, despite some questionable production aspects.

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Review: West Australian Opera and Perth Festival, ‘Opera In The Park’ ·
Supreme Court Gardens, 22 February 2020 ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

Sometimes the whole experience of attending a show can affect your perception of the work itself. And sometimes, when everything aligns just so – when you’re in good company, when you arrive on time, find free parking, have comfortable seats on a 26 degree, wind-free summer’s night, in the beautiful setting of Perth’s Supreme Court Gardens – it’s hard not to enjoy yourself.

Hansel & Gretel is composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s most well-known and most often performed work. It began as a series of folk songs written for his niblings at the request of their mother – Engelbert’s sister, Adelheid Wette, who adapted her own text from the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale. The folk influence is particularly noticeable in the opening scene of the opera, when Hansel and Gretel are playing, singing and dancing at home while their parents are at work. The West Australia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Chris van Tuinen, offered light, flitting woodwind motifs, accompanied by subtle pastoral-like harmony from the strings, underscoring and echoing the children’s sing-song games.

The hearty Kris Bowtell and effortless Fiona Campbell as the parents of Hansel and Gretel. Photo supplied

Each member of the cast gave praiseworthy performances, particularly given the difficult task of singing outdoors and into microphones. Ashlyn Timms was suitably boyish and mischievous in her role as Hansel, demonstrating the versatility of her mezzo voice. Pia Harris’ soprano was a lovely match with the sweetness, vulnerability and tenacity required for the role of Gretel. I had to do a double-take before realising the dual roles played by Fiona Campbell; she seemed to transform so completely and switch so effortlessly between tired, defeated mother to villainous Witch. Kris Bowtell’s hearty baritone voice lent itself well to the role of the father (particularly in the scene where he arrives home drunk, gloating about his spoils for the day) and as always, it was a treat to hear the inimitable Sara Macliver as both the Sandman and the Dew Fairy.

The West Australian Opera used David Pountney’s English translation which made for some awkward syntax and uncomfortably forced rhyming couplets. My friend and I turned to one another and burst out laughing at lines like: “my tongue’s on heat to taste the meat”.


The live-streamed camera feeds to the side-of-stage screens were crystal clear and well-planned, although occasionally disorienting. I felt like I had very little awareness of space and setting, especially when the focus remained on close-up shots of characters’ faces for too long.

Sohan Ariel Haye’s video and light projections added a much-needed visual element. Photo supplied.

Sohan Ariel Hayes’ video and light projections added a much-needed visual element to the production, but it didn’t feel fully integrated with the rest of the work. I liked that the traditional German woods were visually reinterpreted as settings closer to home, with scenes of fiery sunsets in burnt-red and ochre, stark bushland studded with grass trees and burnt-out eucalypts, lush and enticing labyrinths decorated with bright wattle flowers. But it was at odds with the costuming; what were these nineteenth-century German peasants, this Disney-villain Witch and an entire symphony orchestra doing out here, in the bush?

I’m not convinced that staging an opera outdoors does the work justice, but I do appreciate Perth Festival, WA Opera, and the City of Perth’s combined initiative to make the genre more widely accessible, making great use of some of the fantastic public spaces we have in this beautiful city.

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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