Sarasota Opera’s latest addition to this season’s repertory is the story of alcoholism, cannibalism, child abuse and a bad marriage. In the hands of composer Engelbert Humperdinck, “Hansel and Gretel” has become a charming, grand opera favorite that has audiences happily humming familiar tunes as they exit the theater.
Humperdinck, in setting this Grimm fairy tale, managed to come up with an opera about children scored for an orchestra so dense and so richly embroidered, it can obscure the voices on stage.
Fortunately, Anthony Barrese was in the pit and he made crystal-clear water out of the often impenetrable orchestration, never overpowering the singers and bringing forth some of the finest playing from the Sarasota Opera Orchestra to date. Beautiful as the singing and music is on stage, it’s the orchestra that shines in this production.
Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” written in German but sung in English with such clear enunciation the super-titles are almost superfluous, follows the fairy tale fairly well, omitting only the bread-crumb trail, and keeps the aura of childhood fears of the dark, witches and parental retribution in close contact with other child-like enthusiasms for wanderlust, adventure and candy.
Like the cast in this season’s “The Magic Flute,” many of the performers in “Hansel and Gretel” are Sarasota Opera studio artists. In fact, only Heather Johnson (Hansel) and Stella Zambalis (the Witch) are soloists with the company. Johnson, who is making an excellent career with engagements at New York City Opera, Glimmerglass and Boston Lyric, among others, was agile physically and vocally, making a fetching and believable Hansel.
Zambalis, who’s appeared at the Met, Houston Grand Opera and Seattle Opera, is more of a bel-canto witch than the scary-but-loving Rosina Daintymouth, who flies into tantrums at the drop of a broomstick and has a taste for yummy young things.
Angela Mortellaro’s Gretel was pretty and pert, but her voice, tending toward too wide a vibrato, often lost pitch, especially when she sang softly. Still, she nicely managed the extended range called for in this demanding role. Alissa Anderson (The Sandman) and Sarah Beckham (The Dewman), both big-voiced singers, had little staging to work with and sang their short arias with the kind of over-zealousness that comes from having too little to sing in too short a time.
In fact, one sensed that many of the singers felt they had to sing full throttle throughout their times on stage. Whether this was because they wanted their moment in the sun or they felt overwhelmed by the immensity of the orchestration, it probably comes down to lack of the kind of experience they need for this type of opera. Evan Brummel (Peter) and Valerie Kopinski (his wife) left no doubt about the grandeur of their instruments, but we’re sure that as they acquire more stage time, they’ll have the kind of faith in their talents that will allow them to color their sounds.
And, then, there were the children. The gingerbread-turned-human kids were all from the Sarasota Youth Opera, under the leadership of Lance Inouye. Their singing was enthusiastic and their diction clear and understandable. The dancing Choir of Angels came from the Diane Partington Studio of Classical Ballet, and although the choreography was at times stilted, they made a comforting tableau as Hansel and Gretel slept in the forest.
David P. Gordon’s scenery — an A-frame, one-room cottage in the first scene; a realistic stand of woods in the second; and an adorably delicious witch’s candy castle in the last act — with Ken Yunker’s impressive lighting made this Grimm tale appropriately bewitching and bewitched.
Jeffrey Marc Buchman’s staging, steadfastly traditional, was made less so by the ragtag costumes of Howard Tsvi Kaplan. The outlandishly odd getups these characters wore diminished their roles rather than embellishing them.
Still, this is a charming production of an incredibly difficult opera featuring some excellent singers and one of the finest orchestras you can hear.
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