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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 21, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 43
Former Young Artists shine in a Hansel and Gretel for grown-up audiences
Arts & Entertainment
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Former Young Artists shine in a Hansel and Gretel for grown-up audiences

by Alice Bloch - SGN A&E Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
HANSEL AND GRETEL
BY ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
October 15 and 16
(continuing through October 30)


Everybody knows the story of Hansel and Gretel, but few know the opera composed by Engelbert Humperdinck (the German composer, not the English pop singer) and his sister, librettist Adelheid Wette. It's a strange work that juxtaposes jaunty, simple folk songs with lush orchestral passages of complex Wagnerian harmonies. The opera was extremely popular in the early 20th century but now is performed infrequently in the U.S.

When I invited a friend to attend a performance with me and showed her a synopsis indicating that Hansel is played by a woman and the Witch is played by a man, she said, 'This sounds totally gay! I can't wait!' She's right, and you shouldn't wait, either.

The Seattle Opera production, directed by James Bonas and Christian Räth, originated at the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival in England under the direction of Laurent Pelly. It's intelligent, thought-provoking, and a barrel of fun (in spite of its dystopian modern setting). Act I emphasizes the extreme poverty of Hansel and Gretel's family by showing them living in a large cardboard box, one of several beautifully constructed, visually arresting sets designed by Barbara de Limburg. The children's hunger is believable and heartbreaking, as is their ability to play and find joy in life despite their meager surroundings.

One of the challenges of this opera is finding adult singers who can credibly play children. In that respect, Seattle Opera has hit the jackpot with both casts: mezzo-sopranos Sasha Cooke and Sarah Larsen as Hansel, and sopranos Ashley Emerson and Anya Matanovic as Gretel. During the performances of opening weekend, both brother-sister pairs filled the stage with childlike antics and affectionate sibling chemistry - not to mention that all four sang divinely. As their mother and father, soprano Marcy Stonikas and baritone Mark Walters also sang superbly, evoking the weariness and desperation of inadequate but basically loving parents who don't know how they're going to feed their family.

When Hansel and Gretel go out into the forest to search for berries, they're in a barren landscape of dead trees and discarded trash. They play with the plastic bags and empty cans and bottles that litter the forest floor, and then comes the magic moment when the Sandman (Amanda Opuszynski, delightful in both this role and the role of the Dew Fairy) sprinkles sand into the children's eyes to help them sleep. The final section of Act II contains the most glorious music in the opera: first the evening prayer duet, in which the soprano and mezzo-soprano voices blend perfectly; and then a long orchestral passage of sublime beauty, accompanying a dream pantomime in which Hansel and Gretel's wishes are fulfilled.

One of the cleverest touches of this production is the handling of the dream pantomime. While the orchestra plays those sublime chords and Hansel and Gretel sleep, snuggled together on a log, TV screens descend over their heads and display the dreams of two starving modern children: syrup pouring endlessly onto a huge stack of pancakes, ice cream sundaes, chocolate fountains, ketchup being poured onto French fries. At the exact moment of the musical climax, all the screens show enormous Double Whoppers. Then, as the music winds to a close, we see the mouths of children eating all those junk foods.

Video is also used to good effect in introducing the Witch between Acts I and II. While the orchestra plays the vigorous music of the Witch's Ride, we see the Witch in shadow-box silhouette, trying to kick-start a series of brooms and finally finding one that works, then riding it all over the place at crazy angles.

The Witch's house is not a gingerbread cottage but a supermarket, its shelves stuffed with garishly packaged goodies: candies, soda pop, cans of whipped cream. Lighting designed by Joël Adam makes the colors brighter than life. Even while laughing, the audience can't avoid noticing that the packaging is the source of the trash in the forest.

John Easterlin and Peter Marsh, the tenors who share the campy role of the Witch, keep this character amusing even when she's becoming scary. Easterlin in the opening night cast did a better job with the vocal demands of the role than Marsh in the Sunday matinee cast.

Under the direction of conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the orchestra sounded magnificent in both performances. However, the balance between orchestra and singers was somewhat better in the Sunday matinee performance than on opening night.

Five of the nine principal singers in this production (Cooke, Matanovic, Larsen, Stonikas, and Opuszynski) are alumnae of Seattle Opera's erstwhile Young Artists Program, and their performances make the best possible case for reinstating that program. These singers are poised for important careers, not only because of their vocal skill and expressiveness, but also because of their impressive acting ability.

This is one of those rare opera productions in which everything works. I urge you not to miss it.

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