CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE OPERA CLEVELAND PERFORMANCE OF 10/31/08
Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel. (Patricia Risley, Hänsel; Anya Matanovic, Gretel; Dana Beth Miller, Mother / Witch; Todd Thomas, Father; Natasha Ospina, Dew Fairy / Sandman; Dean Williamson, cond.)
In opera, appearances are often of critical importance. Jacob Grimm learned this in his early twenties, when he attended a performance in Paris. The young, pretty daughter, he complained, was portrayed by an elderly, corpulent, and not at all prepossessing singer. And the woman playing her older sister was conspicuously younger. "All this," Jacob wrote to his brother Wilhelm, "contrives to make people not look, but listen only."
Despite the efforts of conductor Dean Williamson, it's the look of things that might well determine how much you enjoy Opera Cleveland's English-language version of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, based on one of the stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm. "We approach our production in the manner of a dream," declares Chuck Hudson in the program booklet's "Director's Notes." He cites Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, while Sigmund Freud and Bruno Bettelheim lurk close by in the shadows. It all leads one to expect something grandly ambitious. To be sure, it might be absurd. (As Vladimir Nabokov once told an interviewer, "I don't want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me.") But a spectacle this Hansel seems sure to be.
What one gets instead is something that, in many respects, reminds me of the blandly wholesome children's specials that my grandmother insisted I watch in the early '70s. In this Hansel, fear is an entirely theoretical entity. You know the forest and the witch and the oven are scary because you're told they are—not because the production makes you feel it. In fact, the forest, in the set design of Erhard Rom, appears altogether agreeable. The manic dance of the Witch in the so-called "Hexenritt" section seems like it could have come from one of those old "social guidance" films warning of the dangers of substance abuse. And why the Witch has a mushroom alongside her house that looks like it was purloined from the Smurfs is anyone's guess.
There are, to be fair, a pair of genuinely lovely moments in the production: the Dream Pantomime at the end of Act II and the hovering Dew Fairy at the beginning of Act III. The Dew Fairy and Sandman are sung by Natasha Ospina, who is the weakest vocal link in an otherwise serviceable cast. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley is a fine Hansel who incorporates a nice sense of young masculinity in her on-stage movements. The production's Gretel, Anya Matanovic, has an overemphatic acting style that further emphasizes the show's "children's programming" feel. But she delivers a unassuming, unmannered, and completely charming version of Act II's "Ein Männlein steht im Walde." Todd Thomas, the children's Father, is prone to let his singing get away from the orchestra. In her portrayal of the witch, Dana Beth Miller gives the most interesting performance of the opera: part Wicked Witch of the West, part sassy frontierswoman, and part just-plain nutcase.
But it's easy to imagine-even to long for-a Hansel and Gretel that's as creative and dark and dreamlike as those "Director's Notes" seem to promise. Opera Cleveland's, though, is one for the children. Those in search of something more substantial may find it as nourishing as a gingerbread house.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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