Portable opera that fits into any given space is bound to result in compromise, but surely director James Hurley and designer Fiona Rigler could have made their Hansel & Gretel look more interesting? The pre-interval set is so sparse it's as though someone forgot to run a vacuum. For the home: a small fridge. For the forest: mops and buckets. And the gingerbread house when it arrives, a foldaway device in drab diagonal lines, is far from mouthwatering.
What colour there is derives more from the show's laugh-out-loud projected captions than its visual ideas. These paraphrases of the libretto (rather than straight surtitles) stay just the right side of tiresome, as Hansel's boast "Mein Erbelkörbchen ist voll bis oben" becomes ‘Got bare raspberries innit' and "Wie lecker" is ‘Nom nom nom'.
Hurley's strength as a director is his ability to inject energy and dramatic commitment into an opera. As with the last Pop-Up production of his that I saw, a Tarantino-esque I Capuleti e i Montecchi, his stage (here a church chancel, although it could be anywhere and any configuration) fizzes with attention to detail and an understanding of pace.
Pop-Up Opera presents ambitious works sung by small casts, just with piano accompaniment, then cuts them to manageable proportions and tours them any- and everywhere. So don't go expecting an epic. The real pleasures are the close-up drama, the fine piano accompaniment by music director Berrak Dyer and, above all, some outstanding vocal performances.
Five singers play the opera's seven characters (the closing children's chorus has been cut, as have the witches' ride and the dream ballet) and they are all first-rate. Rebecca Moon is a charming Sandman and Dew Fairy, Ailsa Mainwaring sweeps all before her as a livewire Mother and a dead good Witch, and James Harrison adds a dash of smooth baritonal class as the children's Father.
As for the titular pair, Sofia Larsson makes a feisty Gretel, a tomboy with a growth spurt and a penchant for rice pudding, and she uses her warm soprano with characterful originality in order to create a sympathetically rounded little girl.
Polly Leech, who sings Hansel (or Hänsel, since Humperdinck's opera is given in the original German), is a revelation. More than that, she's a huge talent and a star in the making. Vocally enthralling with a powerfully centred and exquisitely controlled mezzo, irresistibly entertaining in her ability to inhabit (à la Kevin & Perry) the mind and body of a young boy, Leech is the complete package and the sole cause of the fourth star. A glittering career awaits, so remember this review. You read it here first.
The next performance of Hansel & Gretel is on 19 October at the London Museum of Water and Steam, Kew, after which it tours nationally to towns and cities including Minehead, Kendal, Cambridge and Teignmouth.