Tom Sutcliffe misses the magic

Can one classify the Wagner operas Flying Dutchman and The Ring as fairy-tales? The existence and meaning of magic are as much part of our world as the Christianity and Islam that replaced the folk-tales and related sense of spirits and mystery and atmosphere that seem still to belong around us when we sit alone in a natural environment. We do not know certainly in what our ancestors five thousand years ago believed. But magic was part of it, and is still there in our imaginations. Even an old sacred building consecrated for particular religious use tips us easily into such feelings. Magic crept in at the very start of opera when Monteverdi wrote Orfeo, with its narrative madrigals setting the scene and its bid in the underworld through the power of music to resurrect Euridice (as the myth related). If any human art frees us from being earthbound, it is the magic of music.

I know – plenty of people these days think believing in fairies is no stupider than believing in God. But it is remarkable how stubborn our interest (if not belief) in magic continues as a literary and cinematic phenomenon. Vast numbers have enjoyed thinking through J. K. Rowling’s wildly popular parallel world of wizards with moral obligations: not quite the taste you expect of modernity. Tolkien’s heroic Hobbit in The Lord of the Rings is just as weird, as magic matters not only to Aslan – C. S. Lewis’s Jesus-like lion king in Narnia – but as a continuing meme. We like the alternative facts about the future that we can actually see on screen in Avatar with its intelligent flying dragons – though it is more like current politics in the United States. We are susceptible because we are imaginative. Our imaginations are the greatest tool creation has given us – however prone to abuse or misuse.

I lived Narnia as each story was first published in the 1950s. I read The Wind in the Willows six times before I was nine, feeling like Mole. From five I was seeing ballets about fairies and witches, with evil magic as well as good: Petrushka, Coppélia, The Sleeping Princess, or Swan Lake, non-verbal but meaningful mime and dance: the warmth of ballet in glorious communal celebration. I went through all Andrew Lang’s fairy story collections. It was lucky that in Southsea and Chichester the children’s libraries were full of dusty old volumes that these days would be sold if not borrowed enough. I found Beverley Nicholls’s Stream that Stood Still, with its friendly witch Mrs Smith; and a riveting Dark Ages adventure by Geoffrey Trease: The Sword of Northumbria, with flying dragons breathing fire. Violet Needham whetted my appetite for Ruritania, and has made Viennese operetta seem entirely natural to me.

With fairies and magic we fictionalise our sense of good and bad outcomes, we dream and we wish. If only – making real change usually involves pain and effort. Fairy stories lead us to acknowledge the hard facts of life for which we need true religion. They fertilise the soil where our adult sense of religion grows. Hansel and Gretel prepares us for the miraculously enlightening sadness of the St Matthew Passion.

It’s a shame the three “fairytale” operas in Opera North’s current trilogy of the genre (which tours till March 25 from Leeds to Newcastle-on-Tyne, Salford, Belfast, and Nottingham) have to share more or less the same contemporary set – designed and tweaked by that fine British talent, Giles Cadle. I saw John Fulljames’s Wexford production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden in 2008, and wish he had been half as lively for Opera North – where his villagers become factory workers making blouses and skirts. Rich music; fine casting – though not up to Wexford’s Brian Hymel as Tsar. Snow Maiden, bastard child of Father Frost and Spring Beauty, cannot love (despite her beauty) because her heart is frozen. The Sun God has ordained 16 years of bad Russian winters to punish the pair. But watching what peasants do, and thanks to the Tsar’s intervention, Snow Maiden learns to love and her heart melts: end of opera.

Director Edward Dick, subject to the procrustean handicap of using a single set, opted to ignore the crucial aspect of the Grimm brothers’ Hansel and Gretel tale – which is that the two children of starving poor parents (their father is a woodcutter) are sent into the forest to find food, where they lose themselves gobbling wild strawberries. But they are protected when they fall asleep under a bush thanks to the sandman scattering grit into their eyes, and it’s only after the Dew Fairy wakes them refreshed and happy, that they come upon the witch’s gingerbread house and start eating it. Of course they are caught and the witch wants to get on with roasting the fatter of the two, who she plans to eat with the bread she’s baking – cue for Hansel to push her into the oven, which explodes thus freeing all the other children she has abused and consumed. Happy-ever-after. With no house and not much narrative coherence, Humperdinck’s wonderful masterpiece did not work the theatrical charm of which it is capable.

Stuck in a flat it all had to be effortfully and charmlessly outlined. Of course the music, conducted very stylishly by, Christoph Altstaedt was as enticing as ever. Katie Bray’s strong Hansel and Fflur Wyn’s more delicate similar-sounding Gretel came over well, filling their tower-block apartment living-room with hyperactive games-playing. Susan Bullock as Mother and Witch presented the bad side of things very wittily. But narrative clarity matters in opera, and updating is no excuse for being obscure. Release, don’t restrain, imaginations.