Opera Review: HANSEL AND GRETEL (Pacific Opera Project)

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by Barry Creyton on November 25, 2021

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

HANSEL AND GRETEL GO POP

Humperdinck began his career as an assistant to Richard Wagner; mercifully, this did not influence his composition of Hansel and Gretel, which is light and folksy throughout, and its unWagnerlike running time comes in at less than two hours. Perhaps the most commendable takeaway from his association with Wagner is his use of leitmotif to define characters.

Humperdinck was urged by his sister to compose a few songs for her children’s puppet show. These proved so successful, he expanded them into something closer to the musical theatre of today – with passages of spoken dialogue between the musical numbers. And soon after this, championed by Richard Strauss, Humperdinck composed the entire score for Hansel and Gretel to his sister’s libretto. Since Strauss conducted the premiere performance in 1893, the opera has gone on to become a Yuletide favorite in opera houses throughout the world.

The Brothers Grimm were by no means a misnomer. Their collection of folk tales is grim indeed. As a child, The Little Mermaid disturbed my sleep for weeks after reading. Adelheid Humperdinck clearly had the same reaction when she omitted some of the more sinister aspects of Hansel and Gretel, but what we’re left with is a sweet tale in which children use their own resources to overcome evil.

Far from the extravagant productions I’ve seen at the English National Opera, the Met and the LA Opera, Josh Shaw’s enchanting production for the Pacific Opera Project is scaled way down, to essential cast and an orchestra of six under the sure direction of conductor Brian Holman. Rather than diminishing the impact of the opera, this “chamber” approach enhances the whimsy of the story and focuses clearly on the plot. No small feat was Kathleen Kelley’s in rearranging a score written for an opera orchestra, women’s chorus and children’s chorus, to an instrumental ensemble of six, and a chorus of seven.

While Kara Morgan’s strong mezzo Hansel and soprano Emily Rosenberg’s vivacious Gretel are clearly the stars of the piece, this minimalist approach unites the cast as an ensemble and the singing throughout is strong and clear in spite of the diffuse acoustics of an open space.

Two elements of the production deserve special praise: the design, and the English version of the libretto. The plain little house which stands before the audience during the overture, opens like a picture book into Hansel and Gretel’s home, and later, when the set is redressed and opens up as the witch’s cottage, the strong scent of freshly baked gingerbread wafts over the audience. A nice droolworthy touch.

The English version of the libretto by the multi-talented Kathleen Kelley is given a few twists today’s audience of kids can relate to – the extended “Wow!” uttered by Hansel and Gretel on tasting the Witch’s candy, and such passages as Hansel’s urging a nervous Gretel not to “freak out.”

Another totally enjoyable production by POP. Now we look forward to their move back to an indoor venue next year with the rarely performed Iolanta of Tchaikovsky.

photos by Martha Benedict

HUMPERDINCK: Hansel and Gretel
Pacific Opera Project
sung in English with projected subtitles
Forest Lawn Glendale | 1712 S Glendale Ave in Glendale
reviewed on November 21 (closing performance)
for future productions, visit POP

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