BWW Review: San Diego Opera's Sly and Whimsical HANSEL AND GRETEL at the Civic Center
Engelbert Humperdinck's HANSEL AND GRETEL opened Saturday to an audience that included several dozen children. The story that followed held their attention from beginning to end with color, movement, and singing backed by lushly orchestrated music.
Even a five-year-old girl sitting in front of me on a raised seat kept her eyes on the stage without a single fidget. Director Brenna Corner's playful production emphasized the fairy-tale nature of the story. During the overture a boy entered in front of the curtain, picked up a large book lying center stage and blew a cloud of dust from its cover.
Fascinated, he dropped to the floor reading with a rapt expression while members of the San Diego Opera's children's chorus entered behind him, each with a letter on the front of their costumes. Once assembled the letters lit up to say, "Once upon a time...," and the story began. It continued after intermission with "And then," though not before a necessary rearrangement of the "And" brought a second laugh. The approving audience laughed again when the production closed with "The end."
The story-book feel was reinforced by puppetry designed in the style of Japanese puppet theatre (bunraku) by Alberta's Old Trout Puppet Workshop. As in bunraku productions, puppeteers were visible when glowing white-robed angels guarded the sleeping lost children, when birds flew circles above them in the storybook-like forest setting, and when rabbits and much stranger colorful creatures scampered or walked across the stage.
Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert starred as Hansel and soprano Sara Gartland as his sister Gretel. Gaissert had fun playing an energetic and mischievous young boy who can't help breaking into a delighted dance whenever excited. The trigger is often the prospect of something to eat since the children are starving as the story begins. Gretel has the few spotlight solos the opera provides. Gartland sang them well, but they were topped by the deliciously creamy blend when Gaissert joined her for the opera's duets.
Tenor Joel Sorensen plays the Witch while manipulating a false friendly puppet face
one must imagine is hiding the evil creature's true frightening face. That face is on a huge puppet, so heavy that a second man is behind Sorensen helping to hold it up. The tenor projected clearly in spite of the extra physical demands and sang the witch's sly enticements and evil cackle with a bit of appropriate silent-movie-like exaggeration.
Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie's strong pleasing voice lent a hearty, good-natured feel to his role as the sibling's father. Soprano Marcy Stonikas plays their sterner mother. Conductor Ari Pelto brought out the best in Humperdinck's luminous score. Thomas C. Hase's lighting designs add to the production's feeling of fairy-tale magic, especially in nighttime forest scenes filled with willow-the-wisps, stars and fireflies. The San Diego Opera's Children's Chorus didn't just provide letters. Their performance of the familiar "Evening Prayer" was a highlight.
Soprano Devon Guthrie plays both the Dew Fairy and the Sandman. The latter role
calls for two assistants to help keep separate ears, eyes and nose synchronized as they float in space above them.
The outsized appetites and emotions of Gods and goddesses provide juicy opportunities for deeply felt arias that bring tears to one's eyes or soar heroically. While still in a fantasy world, Hansel and Gretel, based on a children's fairy tale, features simpler characters in a simpler story. The emotions belong to ordinary children who encounter magic in the forms of angels and a witch who would like to bake them into gingerbread in an oven specially designed for that purpose!
Fairy tales make suspension of disbelief more difficult than myths describing love affairs between mortals and gods. When I spoke with director Brenna Corner it was clear that she was okay with that, even willing to up the ante by adding visible puppeteers to the mix. In program notes she says, "We accept the idea that the person operating the puppet is not on stage, despite the fact that we can see them. Instead it is the puppet that comes to life and captures our attention."
Perhaps because I am much older than 16 and didn't grow up in a tradition of bunraku and Noh Theatre masks, I found visible puppeteers distracting. Two people in a puppet witch and others running around the forest setting with poles connected to fluttering birds far above them overwhelmed my ability to suspend disbelief, though I did laugh when the birds would land on a tree branch with beaks moving as woodwinds trilled and sang bird calls. The fantasy-filled production makes for an enjoyable evening.
The original libretto for Hansel and Gretel is in German. The San Diego production, on loan from the Vancouver Opera, is sung in English with the words projected above the stage.
This performance took place on Saturday, February 8. HANSEL AND GRETEL will be repeated February 11, 14, and 16. For full season performance schedules and ticket information visit the San Diego Opera website