WASHINGTON, December 24, 2012 – This past pre-Christmas weekend, the Kennedy Center and the Washington National Opera mounted a colorful, intimate production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic opera, Hansel and Gretel, in the Terrace Theater. It’s the first of what WNO hopes will be many annual Christmas opera productions at the Kennedy Center geared toward families with children of all ages. And judging from the audience reception of Friday evening’s opening performance, this new annual feature is off to a good start indeed.
The original Engelbert Humperdinck, of course, was a well-known German composer of operas. (The one most audiences remember today is the UK singer who borrowed the composer’s name.) That said, the only one of his stage works to have truly endured was his Hansel and Gretel, based with a fair degree of faithfulness on the original fairy tale published by the Brothers Grimm.
The fairy tale—and thus the opera—are so familiar to most people that neither needs much of a plot summary here. That said, for those who thoroughly inhabit the Facebook and Twitter-verse nations, young siblings Hansel and Gretel are the children of an impoverished widower. Dad has, unfortunately, taken on the added burden of an unpleasant new wife who becomes, predictably, the even more unpleasant evil stepmother of Hansel and Gretel.
Exiled to the woods to hunt for berries by their step-mom, the kids get lost and stumble into the fantastic gingerbread house of a wicked old witch who uses the house as a lure to catch unwary children, the better to cook them for dinner. Although Hansel becomes the witch’s designated victim, the plucky Gretel turns the tables and the story ends happily ever after, more or less, when their distraught Dad finally tracks the kids down.
The opera’s excellent libretto, penned by the composer’s sister—and offered in this production in a quirky but generally serviceable English translation—buffs the rough edges out a bit, making step-mom high strung but essentially an okay person and augmenting the redemptive qualities of the finale. And Humperdinck’s music is a genuine treasure, including the famous “Fourteen Angels” duet sung by a hopeful Hansel and Gretel as they fall asleep in the midst of the deep, dark woods.
After some initial “try-outs,” Humperdinck scored his opera for a full, virtually Wagnerian orchestra, so it’s not surprising that the parts of Hansel and Gretel are generally sung by adult female soloists—usually younger artists who seem more believable in the roles. That wasn’t a huge issue in WNO’s production which was geared down to the smaller size of the Terrace, specifically with regard to the size of the pit orchestra—an ensemble, really, consisting of just eight players, including a pianist, all ably conducted by Domingo-Cafritz alumnus Michael Rossi.
Frankly, we missed the full orchestra, having immensely enjoyed last year’s excellent, full Virginia Opera production of the work in Fairfax City. That said, however, WNO’s production was probably a better, less complex musical fit for the numerous small tykes in Friday’s audience making the opera seem more intimate and approachable. Whatever the case, the youngsters must have enjoyed what they were hearing and seeing, as they were perhaps the best-behaved and quietest group of kids this reviewer has ever seen in a performance of this kind.
As for the production and the singing itself, the simple but imaginative sets were designed by Robin Vest and proved the perfect size and dimensions for the Terrace Theater’s small stage. Obviously, some economy was involved here, but it didn’t matter, as the special touches were all there and surprisingly effective, too. From the Sandman’s glittering fairy dust to the witch’s fantastic candy-and-gingerbread hut, along with a magic wand that operated a bit like a Roman candle, everything worked, well, like magic.
The only questionable element were the fourteen abstract angels that dropped down on queue in the middle of that famous duet. They looked a bit less like angels and more like miniature refugees from the annual Albuquerque balloon fest. But the kids seemed to like them, and you could hear many of them quietly counting all fourteen just to make sure those angels were there as the curtain fell. So who are we to complain?
Singing was handled professionally and well by a cast consisting by current and near-past participants in WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program, with the key roles of Hansel and Gretel rotating between pairs of singers alternating between the evening and matinee performances.
Friday’s cast featured soprano Emily Albrink and mezzo Sarah Mesko as Gretel and Hansel respectively. Both acted and sang remarkably like the young children they were portraying, which is really key in this opera when it comes to audience expectations. Ms. Mesko in particular was adept in her portrayal of that little-boy swagger, but both young singers together almost effortlessly supported this pair of substantial singing roles.
In the small role of Gertrude, Humperdinck’s not quite so evil stepmother, soprano Maria Eugenia Antúnez provided the right combination of authority and neurosis to make her regret her unpleasant behavior, allowing her character to be redeemed in the end. Ms. Antúnez made the most of her Act I opportunities, turning in an elegant, understated vocal performance.
As the kids’ good-hearted but n’er-do-well Dad, Peter, baritone Norman Garrett put together an uncanny combination of bluster and affection in his interpretation of the role. Possessing a large, impressive instrument, Mr. Garrett skillfully managed to re-shape his voice to accommodate his role to this production’s more intimate setting.
Like a utility infielder, soprano Jessica Stecklein was delightful in the roles of both the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, the magical characters who close Act I and open Act II respectively. She gave to each role little physical and personality quirks that differentiated the characters, and the silvery quality of her voice seemed well matched to the characters she was portraying.
This production’s greatest surprise was reserved for WNO’s surprise choice to cast the Wicked Witch as a strapping tenor in drag—in this case, veteran WNO character singer Corey Evan Rotz. Mr. Rotz clearly had a lot of fun with the role, retaining the menace of the witch while providing the antidote with the gender bending. The young audience loved it, and saluted Mr. Rotz with a few good-natured “Boo’s” during the curtain call to emphasize the point.
On other fronts, children’s chorus master Michelle Kunz did a top-notch job preparing the WNO young choristers for their charming appearance in the finale. They all sounded great.
For his part, stage director David Gately wisely kept things moving on stage, the better to hold the attention of today’s video-gaming, iPhone-toting younger crowd, and it worked. There was little restlessness evident in the bleachers, and we suspect that at least a few eventual opera fans may have been created during Friday evening’s performance.
A big hat-tip to WNO’s cast, musicians, and crew for putting together a thoroughly charming Christmas family treat, an actual adult-quality opera all wrapped up with a happy holiday bow and accessible to all ages. It was a great way for the company to wrap up its fall 2012 season.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of four.)
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