The IU Opera Theatre is presenting Englebert Humperdinck’s "Hansel and Gretel" in a production conducted by Thomas Baldner with stage direction by Vincent Liotta.
Music was very much a family affair for Humperdinck and the story of how the opera came to be is a family story. Humperdinck’s sister Adeheid Wette asked Englebert to write music for some words to the Grimm brother’s tale that she had written for her own children to sing. Humperdinck thought enough of his efforts to expand them into a singspiel that he gave as an engagement present to his fiancé. Only later did it become his first and most successful opera.
The IU Opera theatre production does a good job of highlighting the fun and the final reassurance of "Hansel and Gretel" without slighting the dark side of the children’s lives and the dangers they face. Saturday’s children, Hansel played by Jessica Riley and Gretel by Kristine Winkler, made a good pair. Riley was especially effective as the gawkily boyish Hansel. Winkler, after some early stage moments where she seemed totally focused on the conductor, was an able dramatic as well as vocal partner.
The life of the family in "Hansel and Gretel" is indeed a hard one. There’s considerable stress on all its members. Betsy Bare was effective both in singing and in acting as the mother who in her anger drives the children into the dangerous witch inhabited woods. Taylor Hightower played Peter the father, the only male lead in the show. Peter is a drunkenly exuberant dad who comes to serious concern over the missing children. Hightower sang with nice confidence and warmth.
Samantha Malk and Erin Kelley were the Sandman who sang Hansel and Gretel to sleep in the forest. In the IU Production, the fourteen protecting angels looked lovely and choreographer Leslie Peck had designed a nice routine. Erin Kelley was the Dew Fairy that awakened the children.
Saturday night’s witch was Diane Coloton. She had a menacingly comical approach that generated apprehension and fear and sang powerfully. Max Rothlisberger’s set with its huge detailed cottage, fairy tale forest of hundred foot tall trees, gingerbread house and exploding oven was a pleasure to see.
There was one thing that perplexed me a bit about Saturday night’s performance. The overture and the first act were crisp and crystal clear. The different parts of the orchestra were in sharp relief, voices were easy to separate and words were easy to hear. In the second act somehow the clarity suffered. The voices seemed to recede into the orchestral sound and everything sounded softer and less defined.
"Hansel and Gretel" is sometimes used as a first time opera for young people and sometimes just for people who are young to opera. The IU production makes a good case for this approach. The opera is tuneful, rhythmic and varied. The story has characters that are more than one dimensional. There’s dramatic tension and danger followed by a reassuring moral. And, it’s just under two hours long, including a fifteen minute intermission.
The IU Opera Theatre’s production of Humperdinck’s "Hansel and Gretel" has its final two performances Friday and Saturday at eight at the Musical Arts Center.