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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Opera Review: Let Them Eat...Each Other

Hansel and Gretel at the Met.
by Paul Pelkonen
Julia Child-killer. Robert Brubaker (r.) as the Witch menaces Gretel in
Act III of Hansel and Gretel. Photo by Marty Sohl © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera marketing department touts Hansel and Gretel as its holiday offering, with a fairy-tale story geared toward children. It promotes images of friendly chefs, and a whimsical (fish-headed) waiter serving up dishes to two hungry tykes lost in the woods. But in choosing to revive Richard Jones''s food-obsessed production (originally seen at the Welsh National Opera in 1999) the company has missed the point of the work.

Part of the problem with Mr. Jones' staging rests in the opera itself. Hansel was first written as a puppet play by composer Engelbert Humperdinck's sister. Her libretto softens the Brothers Grimm tale. The children are not abandoned to be starved--they are merely lost in the woods after their mother sends them out to forage. The Witch, too, is more of a comic figure, an easily dispatched menace. Here, she is portrayed by a cross-dressed tenor, an idea which owes more to British pantomime than German opera.

Maybe kids today are made of sterner stuff than in the past (or maybe they don't pay attention--there was quite a bit of texting going on last night in the Family Circle) but this Hansel remains a misfire. John Macfarlane's drab sets are squeezed into a small space on the Met's giant stage. A series of descending show-curtains depict a lipless hell-mouth--a repulsive image representing the Witch's Ride. The dream ballet (with the fat, puffy chefs, tree-people and the ichthyic waiter) served to confuse the audience.

Luckily, this staging features a game cast. On Wednesday, Dec. 21, Kate Lindsey was an astonishing Hansel, playing the boy as an awkward teenager with a sudden propensity to break into funky Napoleon Dynamite dance moves. She also had fitting command of Hansel's extended mezzo lines. Aleksandra Kurzak was less convincing as Gretel, but she improved radically in the third act, singing powerfully in the confrontation with the Witch.

Robert Brubaker's Witch follows the camp approach taken by the late Philip Langridge, but adds a nasty edge. Mr. Brubaker played the character as frumpy, yet evil, with all of the cunning of Wagner's Mime and a lot more cruelty. Dwayne Croft was a bland presence as Peter, the father. Michaela Martena seemed to disappear into the drab scenery as Gertrude. Strong performances from Jennifer Johnson Cano and Ashley Emerson (as the Sandman and the Dew Fairy) injected some warmth into the proceedings.

For this run, the Met has brought in an exciting young conductor, 28-year old Robin Ticciatti, recently appointed as music director at the Glyndebourne Festival. He brought a fresh, vibrant approach to a score that can sometimes seem heavy-handed. Humperdinck was a disciple of Richard Wagner's and the older composer's influence is clear in the use of a large orchestra, heavy brass, and a certain sweeping lyricism in the music that recalls the last act of Die Meistersinger. Mr. Ticciatti deserves credit for elevating the proceedings and helping to overcome the business onstage.

The last act of Mr. Jones' Hänsel is set in a giant, industrial-sized kitchen and makes for most uncomfortable viewing. The characters get smeared with chocolate, icing and powdered sugar. When greedy Hansel is trussed and force-fed icing through a funnel, the opera veers into the theater of the absurd. The Witch is summarily killed and baked into bread. When the final redemption comes and the Witch's ginger-bread baked children come suddenly to life, it doesn't seem like much of a payoff. After all, they're all holding knives and forks.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.