Ambulatory Opera at the Bussey building in Peckham started in January with a witty but bitty production of Henry Purcell’s masterpiece Dido and Aeneas. It continues this month with an altogether slicker version of Hansel and Gretel, the 19th century 'fairy-tale opera' written by (the original) Engelbert Humperdinck.
For those not familiar with Peckham’s hipster hubs, the Bussey Building is a century-old warehouse just behind Rye Lane that was saved from demolition by local activists in 2009 and is now used as an arts venue. Opera in Space, the outfit behind both Dido and Hansel and Gretel, live up to their name by staging each of the latter’s three acts on a different floor. It’s as if we are getting deeper into the woods as we climb up into the iron-pillared building.
Ambulatory or 'immersive' theatre, pioneered by the likes of Punchdrunk, is well established in London; so is opera in unusual venues, courtesy of companies like OperaUpClose and Popup Opera. Ambulatory opera is a whole new challenge, requiring a band of musicians to pick up their instruments and move with the action. Opera in Space’s solution involves an arrangement of Humperdinck’s famously thick Wagnerian score for an unusual trio of piano, cello and clarinet. Even then the company has had to source three pianos to pull it off.
The result is necessarily a compromise, but a surprisingly successful one. The mellow tones of the clarinet are particularly well-suited to Act 2, when the children fall asleep in the wood, yet throughout they do something to evoke the Romantic spirit of Humperdinck’s exceptionally tuneful music. Dispensing with full orchestra also allows the singers to prioritise words, vocal tone and acting over sheer power – of which they nonetheless offer plenty when it matters.
In fact, one of the evening’s other surprises was the consistently high quality of the singing. Sylvie Gallant’s light soprano voice is much better suited to the role of Gretel than it was to Dido, Queen of Carthage, which she sang in January. Katie Slater made a convincingly boyish Hansel despite a fine mezzo-soprano voice. Rhonda Browne, both physically and vocally terrifying as the mother and witch, had us pinned to our seats.
It is also worth singling out the humour of the libretto, translated from the original German into rhyming couplets by Lewis Reynolds. “You’ll have to kneel, it’s no big deal; just get on your knees, it’s a breeze,” sings the witch as she lures Gretel towards her oven. Such straight-forward story-telling in a relaxed, intimate venue makes this Hansel and Gretel fresher and easier to engage with than many of the big-budget opera productions on offer in the West End. A festive treat.
Hansel and Gretel is showing at the Bussey Building, Peckham, until 21 December. Tickets £17.50 / £12.50.