January 20, 2007 / 11:45 AM / in 11 years

"Hansel and Gretel" an opera primer for kids

Hansel and Gretel

By Madeleine Shaner

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The line at the coat check booth at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the opening-day matinee was an astonishment until we remembered we were about to see “Hansel and Gretel,” sometimes thought of as a children’s opera, and the line was for booster cushions for the younger set.

Engelbert Humperdinck (the original one, 1854-1921) wrote most of the music for his opera as accompaniment to his sister’s (Adelheid Wette) play for her children, based on the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale. Drawn from German folk tunes and dances, the score was deemed by Richard Strauss to be a masterwork with “refreshing humor . . . preciously naive melodic art . . . original, new and thoroughly German.”

The new English libretto by Richard Sparks, however, either listening to it or reading the super-titles, doesn’t seem as harmonious with the music as it might. Its forced rhymes come off like doggerel much of the time, prosaic and unmelodic. Nevertheless, under the skillful baton of Alan Gilbert, the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra comes through, fulfilling the intentions of the composer by combining the seeming simplicity of the children’s themes with the sophisticated musicality of a master composer.

From the beginning, with the opening view of the broom-maker’s cottage at the edge of the woods, there are wonderful visual surprises: smoke from the chimney, lights going on in the cottage, dancing chairs and tables, the cosmic fizz of the witch’s broomstick entering the darkening clouds. The opening scene, pastoral and unthreatening until Hansel and Gretel are shunted off to the forest by their resentful mother, shape-shifts soon into a darkly breathing forest, somber in greens and grays, with patches of light being gobbled up by ominous shadows.

As the light changes, the mood changes. The children, coming down from their adventure, tired and scared, lonely and hungry, begin to rassle with each other. The ambiance, and Mark Jonathan’s evocative lighting, change ominously as sundown magically turns up the light in the giant mushrooms that shelter the pair, who are joined by some wild and woolly, oddly shaped, cartoony forest creatures with illuminated eyes (also Fitch’s cool creations), which are cute and funny rather than scary. The creatures sit in for the Angels in the original libretto. As the Sandman, Christine Brandes, inside a giant stone head, whisks sand into the children’s dreams as they fall asleep to the beautiful “Evening Prayer.” In the morning, they’re awakened by the Christmas tree-tall Dew Fairy, a sweet-sounding Stacey Tappan.

It’s not until the second act that the children in the audience perk up, and the “children” onstage — a nicely boyish Lucy Schaufer in fine mezzo-soprano voice as Hansel and Maria Kanyova as a spirited Gretel — wake up to the fact that they’re lost in the forest.

More of Fitch’s magic has produced a great gingerbread house — ripe for eating, with marzipan eaves and a chocolate driveway — and a wild and crazy Witch (a hysterically funny Graham Clark in a big, blond hairdo, a pink tutu and a ladle tucked in his bra). Legend made this rather ludicrous witch a scary prospect for Hansel and Gretel as she mixed up her cake batter and fattened up Hansel to giant basketball size — another phenomenal sight gag by the director-designer — in order to turn him into another gingerbread boy for her cookie harem. Tables are smoothly turned here as Gretel takes charge while the incapacitated Hansel is blown up to cookable size. The young audience let out a huge ‘Yeah!’ when the Witch was finally pushed into the oven and Gretel was able to resurrect all the other gingerbread children to save the day.

The winning combination of a fine, well-executed score, an impressively imaginative design effort and a well-known story tricked up for fun makes a terrific introduction for children as well as adults to the world of opera.

Cast:

Gretel: Maria Kanyova

Hansel: Lucy Schaufer

Gertrude (Mother): Luana DeVol

Peter (Father): Donnie Ray Albert

Sandman: Christine Brandes

Dew Fairy: Stacey Tappan

The Witch: Graham Clark

Composer: Engelbert Humperdinck; Original libretto: Adelheid Wette; New English libretto: Richard Sparks; Conductor: Alan Gilbert; Director/Set designer: Douglas Fitch; Lighting designer: Mark Jonathan; Los Angeles Opera concertmaster: Stuart Canin; Artistic director, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus: Anne Tomlinson.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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