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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Opera Review: Fairy Tale Justice

The Met bounces back with Hansel and Gretel.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Spoon man: Kitchen witch Gerhard Siegel (center) makes magic while
Hansel (Tara Erraught, prone) and Gretel (Lisette Oropesa)  try to escape. Photo by Marty Sohl © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera plans its seasons five years in advance. So when general manager Peter Gelb chose Hansel and Gretel as one of this year's two holiday presentations, there was no way that he could have predicted that this fairy tale opera, sung in English, would be just the thing that this opera company, rocked by a month of sex scandals and rumors, needed.

Relevant? Hansel and Gretel? Wait a minute. That's an opera for kids, right? Well yes, Humperdinck retells the Brothers Grimm fairytale of neglected, starving children and their encounter with a cannibal witch. The adventures of the hungry brother and sister are set to a lush, Wagnerian score. The composer, Wagner's assistant before the premiere of Parsifal, uses sweeping transitions and leitmotifs to guide the fairy-tale along, supplying memorable themes that either incorporate children's tunes or themes that have developed eternal life in the play of children.

There's little that's playful about the Met's fanciful production, a dark and disturbing take on the story from director Richard Jones. The children are latchkey kids, thrown out of their apartment. The forest they find themselves in is a mysterious dining hall. And there's no gingerbread house: the Witch (played in this staging by a bewigged character tenor in drag) works out of a grim industrial kitchen that looks like something out of World War II.

From the first notes of the orchestra on Tuesday night, this performance conducted by Donald Runnicles seemed to have a mission: to clear the ugly poison clouds of scandal that have tainted this opera season. The clean, refreshing tones of the Met Opera's crack horn section rose majestically from the pit, chased by dancing winds and the majestic wall of strings. In this passage, the Witch's Ride and the Dream Ballet, the players were crisp and driven. Accompanying the singers, the veteran Mr. Runnicles showed sympathy for the material and expertise in rolling the music forth for the listener's delectation.

His cause was helped by a strong pair of leads. Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and soprano Lisette Oropesa played the wandering pre-teens to the hilt, engaging in the childlike, comic delights of the first two acts without ever seeming like they were pretending or play-acting. When things turned serious in Act III, one sensed the bond between these siblings and the current director (Met regular Eric Einhorn) did a good job of having them work together to defeat the Witch.

If this performance as Peter (the siblings' father) is any indication, bass Quinn Kelsey is a fast-rising artist who may soon be a fixture at the Met. The venerable Dolora Zajick played the Mother with a tart presence and vocal heft, particularly in the last act. As the Sandman, Rihab Chaieb brought a bright soprano under a marvelous old man mask, touching off the dream ballet with its parade of angelic chefs and a fish-headed waiter. The Dew Fairy, played by soubrette soprano Hyesang Park, made washing up fun and lifted the curtain on the third act in a bright and breezy manner.

Of course you can't have this fairy tale without the Witch. Gerhard Siegel is a masterful character tenor. His delirious, loopy performance had echoes of the Second Viennese School (particularly the Captain from Wozzeck) pushing the envelope of tonality with his firm, bright voice. He inhabited the role perfectly in a frumpy dress and a wide, curly gray wig gesticulating like a conductor with his spoon. For once, this was a Witch cut from the same cloth as Mime, an unsympathetic villain who met their end with no pity from the protagonist...or the Met audience.

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