Once upon a time, dozens of children streamed into the elegant Terrace Theater at The Kennedy Center, all of them paragons of excitement and curiosity. Were these holiday tots rushing in to see the hottest new children’s show or Disney musical? On the contrary, they were bursting with glee at the prospect of a 19th century German opera written by a man who was actually named Engelbert Humperdinck. It may seem like a fairy tale, but in truth this is what the Washington National Opera has accomplished with its 4th annual staging of Hansel and Gretel.
Directed by Sarah Meyers and Conducted by Michael Rossi, the voices soared and the set and costumes seemed to pop off the stage like so many colorful gumdrops. But for me, the most satisfying moment of the opera came before the curtain even rose. During that time, children as young as six rushed up to the stage to peer into the pit populated by the 8 member WNO Orchestra, directed by Music Director Philippe Auguin. The kids were fascinated by the prospect of live musicians buried underneath the stage. If there is a way to engage young audiences with live classical opera, this is indeed the gold standard. But make no mistake: Hansel and Gretel is a scrumptious holiday treat for adults as well.
The opera Hansel and Gretel, with libretto by Adelheid Wette and music written by the aforementioned Mr. Humperdinck, premiered in 1893 in Weimer, Germany. Although there are no explicit references to Christmas in the script, the opera has always been associated with the holidays, due in large part no doubt to the prevalence of candy and gingerbread in the story. And although the opera is based on the famous Grimm’s fairy tale of 1812, the opera does make certain elaborations on the classic story.
For example, although the mother (actually step-mother) in the fairy tale is a rather sadistic woman who insists her husband dump their children in the forest so that they can save more food, the mother (not step-mother) in Humperdinck’s opera is a kind hearted, if harried, maternal figure. Mezzo-Soprano Daryl Freedman brings a dramatic vocal power to the Mother that contrasts nicely with the sprightly, staccato sound of the children. The father, played by baritone (and sole male cast member) Alesky Bogdanov, sings a booming and cheerful role reminiscent of Father Christmas himself. Together, Freedman and Bogdanov well establish their relationship as a pair of loving parents who are devastated when their children go missing.
Hansel and Gretel themselves are portrayed as two typical children, playful and rambunctious. The Hansel I saw was played by Aleksandra Romano (Julia Mintzer plays Hansel in certain other performances), a mezzo soprano who completely nailed the swaggering little boy who is Hansel. My Gretel was Ariana Wehr (whose role is played, in other performances, by Jennifer Cherest), a soprano who does most of the heavy lifting in terms of those famous glass-breaking high opera notes. My favorite vocal moments were when Romano and Wehr harmonized, either in their grief or their joy, creating a sound that was greater than the sum of their voices.
The other major element of the opera that differs from the Grimm’s tale is the addition of two characters, the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. The former, played by soprano Raquel Gonzalez, puts the children to sleep when they are deep in the woods by blowing sparkly fairy dust out of her hand. This scene closes Act I. When Act II begins, the Dew Fairy, played by soprano Melissa Mino, duly awakens the children with a gentle warmth reminiscent of Glinda from The Wizard of Oz. Newcomers to the operatic version of Hansel and Gretel may find these characters a bit, well, random, inserted to add some meat to what is essentially a bare bones folk tale. Nevertheless, both Gonzalez and Mino sing their parts with great power and precision. And one of the most visually stimulating moments in the opera comes during the course of the Sandman scene, when stunningly costumed wild animals menacingly encircle the sleeping children, only to be warded off by 14 guardian angels, represented by a seemingly endless cascade of silver flakes falling from the sky.
Despite strong performances from the entire cast, including the 14 members of the WNO Children’s Chorus, the undeniable star of the show was the Witch, played with stunning virtuosity by soprano Kerriann Otano. As the enticing temptress-cum-wicked killer Otano is spot-on. In addition to her death-defying vocal feats, Otano is aided by all the designers of Hansel and Gretel, all of whose work seems to culminate in its greatest moment in the Witch scene in Act II. For instance, Costume Designer Timm Burrow crafts a hallucinogenic gown for the Witch that evokes both candy-colored sweetness and an acid trip gone horribly wrong. Hair and Makeup Designer Anne Ford-Coates creates a veritable sculpture out of the Witch’s hair, making it a character in and of itself. Lighting Designer Jeff Bruckerhoff washes the stage in garrulous greens and violent violets, and Set Designer Robin Vest constructs a feast for the eyes that is reminiscent of German woodcarving and children’s book illustrations.
All in all, Hansel and Gretel is as tempting to the eye and the ear as the Witch’s gingerbread house itself. Lucky for us, rather than meeting the Witch’s fiery fate following the performance, all we get are little bags of M&M’s passed out by The Kennedy Center volunteers. Truly, then, it can be said that the opera ends on a sweet note.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 20-minute intermission.
Hansel and Gretel plays through December 20, 2015 at the Washington National Opera, performing at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.