If you haven’t heard that Washington has become a great music-theatre center, you haven’t been paying attention. Offerings across the spectrum of styles keep on increasing in breadth and depth, and new audiences are being developed all over town. Now Washington National Opera broadens its scope by launching a “new annual tradition” of holiday fare geared toward introducing young audiences to the world of opera.
Their production of Hansel and Gretel could become a perennial favorite, joining the holiday line up along with Ford Theatre’s Christmas Carol and one or other Nutcracker.
Composed by Engelbert Humperdinck with a libretto penned by his sister, Adelheid Wette, at the end of the 19th century, the opera and its composer boast an impressive lineage, being championed by both the great Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. It instantly became Humperdinck’s most popular work. As such, it offers, to young and old audiences, a great way to experience this most synthetic art form – as Wagner holistically envisioned it. It’s loaded with a series of folk-like tunes, easy on the ear and aiming to please.
The work is based, of course, on the famous fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. At the center of the story is the brother-sister pair who are sent out to the woods and there meet and match wits with the witchiest of witches. They not only beat her at her game of gobbling up goodies but push her into her own oven and (in this version) bake her into her very own gingerbread incarnation.
Sarah Mesko and Emily Albrink sang the sibling leads opening night. They have already demonstrated fine musicality and good stage presence, taking on roles in WNO’s big operas while they continued their training as part of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program. Now they return, alumnae and accomplished professionals. They are especially pleasing when they sing some of the score’s duets, from the famous subdued “Evening Prayer” to their celebratory song after the witch’s demise.
These two performers also carry the show dramatically with their appealing personal characterizations. Albrink’s fluid soprano voice is matched by a mercurial grace that enables her to realize fully the dazzling changes in the score that mark Gretel’s emotional journey. In one moment, she scolds Hansel with a motherly wag and maturity her brother lacks, but later in Act II she collapses to the forest floor, a scared little girl, desperately in need of her brother’s protection. Mesko effectively uses her rich mezzo sound and grounded physicality to portray the recalcitrant, yet sometimes impulsive and greedy Hansel.
For some who might find it a little odd, Mesko playing a boy’s role is part of a long tradition in opera and theatre where a light, higher female voice was preferred for a young boy’s, “breeches role.” In counterpart, an older female role that might call for a gruff or evil personality and some high-jinx physicality would be reserved for a male performer.
In this show, WNO found the perfect American tenor, Corey Evan Rootz, to play the Witch. He has much fun strutting around the stage in black pointy-toe high heels, a corseted-and-patchworked satin dress, and a wild pompadour wig that might have adorned the head of French royalty. This witch is deliciously evil, whether Rootz is indulging in a cackling laugh, brandishing his magic wand, or adding ornamentation to the vocalises as in “ Greedy little mousey, who’s nibbling at my housey?”
American baritone Norman Garrett has a beautiful sound and easy stage presence as the children’s father. I had the good fortune to have heard this man step into the role of Amonasro in Aida at Glimmerglass this summer. Hearing his robust sound again and watching him switch physically into his folksy character in this opera was a deep pleasure.
Maria Eugenia Antunez had made a stunning Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni with the WNO but seemed a little miscast as the mother, and I couldn’t quite follow the character choices she made. Was she an angry, cruel mother or just careless and caught up in her grown-up relationship with the father? This Uruguayan singer’s vocal phrasing and vowel sounds were also occasionally confusing in this text translated and sung in English.
Robin Vest has created a magical set, which, like the music, has been wrought with deceptively simple means. The three key locations are defined mostly by painted wooden flats. The first scene is dominated by a large cut-out cottage whose exterior framing features a roof that sags with snow almost to the ground, and its cut away interior reveals a forced-perspective floor so the whole thing looks like an Escher drawing. The second act, where the children have been forced out into the woods, is managed with a few black, scroll-branched trees that appear to come straight out of an Edward Gorey cartoon. But the real delight for all children is the transformation of a giant tree into the witch’s gingerbread house. With its candy-cane porticos and gum-drop eaves, its ribbon-candy stoop and door mantles, poofy with marshmallows, it does indeed look good enough to eat.
Director David Gately has got a lot of things right, but the show at times seemed to plod, and there were holes in the direction as if there hadn’t been sufficient time to get everything ready. A lot of instrumental sections weren’t sufficiently filled with stage business. Four marvelously costumed, where-the-wild-things-are creatures meet the children in the woods, but, instead of inventing some clever choreographed story, Gately has left them standing around the stage flapping their wings, “paws or-anything-they-got-now.”
Guardian angels, in the guise of large Christmas ornaments draped with diaphanous “skirts,” drop down from the flies then just hang about so poor Hansel and Gretel are left to wonder…and wonder and wonder…
To my mind, there are a few other odd choices in the production. While I could appreciate the somewhat eclectic stylizations of the different Disney-to-Gory set pieces, the costuming was more than a little confusing. The costumes for Hansel and Gretel seemed quite traditionally realized in subdued peasantry garb. Costume Designer Timm Burrow certainly had a blast with the drag queen touches of the Witch. But why he dressed the Sandman in what looked like an aviator’s outfit I couldn’t fathom, and the character bore no relationship, as the music does, to the Dew Fairy. Instead of light-and-airy, Jessica Stecklein was forced to clump onstage in spangling silver platform boots and wearing a wild, vilely-colored wig so distracting her silvery notes could not command my full attention.
The lighting designed by Jeff Bruckerhoff is fanciful and quite splendid throughout, and the show takes off with the magical transformation of the gingerbread house. The children in the audience sat up in rapture, and, energy-wise, that’s when the opera really coalesced. As Hansel tiptoed toward the door, one little boy sitting close to the stage loudly warned him, “Oh-oh!” And we were right there with him, deep inside this lovely story that thereafter just clipped along.
Hansel and Gretel
December 21 – 23, 2012
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours with 1 intermission
The witch slams Hansel into her little jail and enslaves Gretel. Gretel and Hansel both use their wits and push the witch into a hilarious belly flop in the oven. The evil magic is destroyed. Suddenly, a children’s chorus appears, representing the many children who had been lost in the woods or ensnared by this or other witches, and sing together beautifully. The parents of Hansel and Gretel finally discover their children, and relieved at their safety, all join in a final number complete with fairy tale moral that “Evil cannot be ignored. Virtue is its own reward.”
With a little more care in the recipe, this piece could indeed rise and make for totally delicious Christmas fare. My guess is that audiences agree. The four performance run sold out as soon as it was announced. WNO promises a longer run next year.
Hansel and Gretel . Composed by Engelbert Humperdinck . Libretto by Adelheid Wette . Directed for the Stage by David Gately . Conducted by Michael Rossi . Produced by Washington National Opera (WNO) . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith