Operas Review: HANSEL AND GRETEL (SF Opera)

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by Tony Frankel on December 2, 2019

in Music,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Well, how thrilling is it to see a brand new production in the world of opera. Especially given that this one is a winner replete with charm and cast with perfection. This new SF Opera co-production of Hansel and Gretel with London’s Royal Opera House — completely directed and designed by Antony McDonald — rethinks nineteenth-century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Märchenoper” just enough to freshen up this simple opera, one which has surprisingly little ghoulishness given the children’s predicament of being fattened up by a Witch in the woods in order to gobble them up for dinner.

It is probably the only opera of any kind, unless one counts Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1951 Amahl And The Night Visitors, that is accessible to all ages. Based on the famous and dark fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, this is Humperdinck’s only well-known work. It has remained a part of opera companies ever since Richard Strauss conducted its successful premiere in Weimar on December 23, 1893. In fact, as with this run, it is often performed at Christmas time, sometimes with the same frequency given to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or Handel’s Messiah.

Most performances and recordings are in the composer’s native German, with a libretto by Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette. Early on in the 20th century, a translation was made by English composer and pianist Constance Bache; here in America, the English version arrived courtesy of Norman Kelley for a performance by the Metropolitan Opera in 1967. The newer version here at SF Opera is that of David Poutnay, ensuring that the tale sounds as American as possible with some truly terrific rhymes.

The very distinguished cast ensures that Humperdinck’s rich, folk-inspired score is given a first-rate treatment, but the humongous 65-piece orchestra of Wagnerian proportions under the direction of Christopher Franklin blew me away. What I wouldn’t give for a music-minus-one rendition, so I could relive the lushness, the sweetness, and Olga Ortenberg-Rakitchenkov’s beautiful harp-playing. Franklin captures the sugary aspects of the score but never lets it get sappy.

The enduring story of two hungry children who go out to pick berries for their parents, only to find themselves lost in the dark enchanted forest and trapped at the hands of a sinister hag is so popular and easy to swallow — at a length of 2:10 including intermission — that it can sometimes be tempting to phone it in. But that’s exactly what the cast here avoids studiously, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Hansel and soprano Heidi Stober as Gretel stupendously nailing the sophisticated harmonies that lend heroic grandeur to this story of childhood innocence.

The entire cast is far stronger than the LA Opera production last year (which had Susan Graham more Mrs. Lovett than Witch). The fine American tenor Robert Brubaker has the enviable task of essaying the evil Witch, a part he’s played before. It’s a “why-haven’t-I-seen-that-before” idea when Brubaker gets to don drag as a way to lure in the kiddies, but turns out to be more like Dr. Doom; he does so with relish, but not in an over-the-top way. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens plays a sturdy and sad Gertrude, Hansel and Gretel’s mother, while dad Peter is the best I’ve ever seen: Bass-baritone Alfred Walker, is elegant, powerful, and a great actor with diction to spare. San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows soprano Natalie Image is the Dew Fairy and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon is the Sandman. Dixon’s mask is thoroughly creepy, a necessary element to amend the story’s lack of terror. Instead of weird night creatures, the ensemble is a Grimm book sprung to life; in fact, you’ve seen these same characters (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Prince, et al.) in Into the Woods, but I also noticed Rumpelstilsken makes the scene, performing a neat trick turning straw to gold.

Mr. McDonald ensures that the dark nature of the story is evident as well, but not so much that it will scare too many children out of their minds. Look for the slow-moving moth and beetle on the proscenium, on which is prominently displayed a gorgeous cuckoo clock with moving hands. The families’ hovel is awash with detail, but it is the Witch House that is gloriously out of control — imagination on steroids. Since the score is so cinematic, why not make the evil one’s house the same as Mrs. Bates’ in Psycho, with a huge knife skewered through the attic and a cherry on top. This is one house you want to eat up and run from at the same time.

Now, how’s that for an enchanting confection?

photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Hansel & Gretel
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave
in English with English supertitles
ends on December 7, 2019
for tickets, call 415-864-3330 or visit SF Opera
$10 standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance

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