VIENNA, Va., December 6, 2011 – The Virginia Opera rang down the curtain on the first half of its 2011-2012 season at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts last weekend with its second surprise hit in a row—a marvelously creative new setting of Engelbert Humperdinck’s odd but enduring “children’s opera,” Hansel and Gretel. Perhaps last season’s cataclysmic events—including a severely waning budget and the ouster of longtime musical director Peter Mark—combined to galvanize this organization and inspire its directors to strike out in new directions.
Hansel and Gretel—the opera—had an unusual compositional path. Early versions of the work were penned by the composer, a fervent acolyte of Richard Wagner, as a favor to his sister who wanted to have a new children’s mini-opera to perform for her young charges. One thing led to another. And soon Humperdinck (the original one, not the British singer) had expanded his fairy tale-based opera into what Hollywood might call a “full length feature.”
Humperdinck’s opera was reasonably well received, gaining steadily in popularity as it began its journey around the world. To this day, it’s regularly performed in many locales. But generally and somewhat inexplicably, it’s regarded here in the States at least, as a “Christmas opera,” even though it has nothing to do with this holiday, except, perhaps, for its surprisingly generous spirit.
Everyone knows, or at least should know, the tale of Hansel and Gretel, the young brother and sister banished to the woods by their wicked stepmother and ultimately trapped by a wicked witch who plans to devour Gretel’s young brother as a tasty snack.
Like most beloved fairy tales—often sanitized for the kiddies here in the U.S.—the original for this version, based on the recalibration of a traditional folk tale by the Brothers Grimm—was pretty bloody-minded at the outset, with its witch resembling a Germanic Hannibal Lecter and with its requisite evil stepmother interpreted by some as the witch’s doppelgänger because she mysteriously dies at roughly the same time the witch is dispatched by the resolute Gretel, who dumps her unceremoniously into a deep-fat fryer in this version.
Humperdinck and his sister chose a slightly more benevolent version of the tale for their opera, casting the parents as impoverished but generally good-hearted souls doing their best for their family in spite of the local economy. In fact both Dad and Mom rejoice at the end of the opera when they discover their lost kids are still alive.
The Virginia Opera’s creative team decided to run with the social criticism piece of this fairy tale, which led to a brilliant stroke. The company updated the opera’s concept to our own times, setting it squarely on the seamy side of our ongoing Great Recession. We first view Mom, Dad, Hansel, and Gretel as a homeless family, traveling about in a rattletrap station wagon, looking to find a living while camping out in a forlorn field out in the middle of nowhere.
The concept is initially startling. The audience begins to think, instinctively, OMG! Another stupid update to a perfectly good opera. But the notion vanishes immediately because you can just see it happening. Even more helpfully, the Virginia Opera does not succumb to the kind of socialist-gray color scheme that traps the Washington National Opera time and time again as in its recent production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Nope, none of that Euro-trash stuff. This Hansel and Gretel is set somewhere on the American plains, and our intrepid young heroes, hungry and oppressed as they are, still have the gumption to trick that old witch in the end. It’s actually quite refreshing, and the kids in the audience loved it.
The most interesting thing of all about this production is that its concluding action is plunked down in the midst of a decaying traveling carnival, with its balloons and brightly lit Ferris Wheel serving as a backdrop to the witch’s gingerbread house, which has actually morphed into a cotton candy and sweets stand, the better to tempt our two famished young heroes.
The whole shebang is simply a great concept, adding some real theater magic to the proceedings in such a way as to retain the charms and trepidations of the original while making things vastly more appealing to the young and young at heart.
Aside from making great theater, however, this production ultimately has to be judged as an opera. And for the most part this production succeeds in its aims.
The orchestra, which could have used a few more strings, played marvelously well under the baton of conductor Gerald Steichen. The cast of singers, including a troupe of singing kids imported from the Virginia-based Governor’s School for the Arts, were competent to very good as well. If a couple of the soloists occasionally appeared underwhelming, it may very well have had to do with their being directed to, well, sing like kids, which is a perfectly acceptable approach in this opera.
The most strenuous roles in the opera are, of course, Hansel (mezzo Karin Mushegain) and Gretel (soprano Julia Ebner). They’re onstage much of the time and not only have to sing convincingly, but also convey the dueling emotions of two young kids who are left to fend for themselves against a truly lethal opponent. Ms. Mushegain is convincingly boyish as Hansel, while Ms. Ebner—though a bit zaftig for the part—comes across well as big sister Gretel. The pair’s performance of this opera’s greatest hit, “Fourteen angels,” which closed out the first act, was both moving and believable.
Other nice performances were turned in by soprano Elizabeth Baldwin who sang the role of the Dew Fairy; countertenor Jason Abrams, unusually and effectively cast in lieu of the usual soprano in the role of the Sandman; and baritone Eric Greene whose exuberant, masculine voice provided welcome ballast to this mostly female cast opera.
At the top of the singers’ pyramid in this production, however, was mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak, cast in the dual roles of the not-so-wicked actual Mom as well as that wicked old witch in the second act. We’ve seen Ms. Gawrysiak in area productions before, including her performance as a convincing Mrs. Lovett in this summer’s Wolf Trap Opera performance of Sweeney Todd. She’s got a powerful voice, great acting chops, and is unafraid of physical comedy as well—all of which are significant assets in this opera. Her performance, particularly as the witch, galvanizes everyone into action in this production, which is an added plus—not to mention that she lends a virtual grand opera presence to the performance.
A hat tip to director Kevin Newbury who kept the proceedings moving along but with a light hand appropriate to this opera’s nature. And kudos as well to designer Mimi Lien for those wonderfully imaginative settings and to Paul Carey for all the bright and colorful costumes.
And let’s not forget that youthful chorus. They were well rehearsed and well coached and they sounded as good as any ensemble of singing kids that we’ve heard in recent memory.
Finally, this opera was sung most of the time in an occasionally weird but generally very effective contemporary English translation and resorted only to the opera’s native German when various characters sang the traditional German folks songs woven into the work. Helping further, surtitles were displayed throughout, again giving younger audience members complete access to this wonderful holiday opera treat.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars.)
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