When Engelbert Humperdinck sat down to turn Hansel and Gretel into the operatic masterpiece it is, he envisioned a large Wagnerian orchestra and over-the-top sets, costumes and props to provide a visual feast of major proportions – food proportions, that is. However, that is not what you got when Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre, one of the newest little opera companies to pop up in the city, decided to mount this piece. Something completely different came out of it – simplicity at it best.
Director Heidi Lauren Duke brought this fairytale to life in a new production that turned this jewel of an opera into a truly delicious holiday treat to be savored by children and the many young-at-heart. Though it played in a somewhat limited and less-than-desirable facility near Penn Station, once you walked into the white-box theater you were immediately transported into a winter wonderland complete with gentle wafts of cinnamon and spice in the air. It seems as though this young, fully-capable director was determined to take all of your senses on a magical ride right through to the end where the forest of birch trees framing the playing area lit up in glorious splendor as the family was reunited, singing and dancing.
In what is best described as an Off-Off-Broadway opera production, the cast of characters was led by a dazzling duo – Darcy Dunn was stunning as Hansel, who constantly complains of hunger, and Natalie Gray's adorable Gretel was an absolute treat as she made Hansel forget his worries by singing and dancing. Dunn was in fine voice as the mischievous lad, crying out with hunger pangs, but gently caressing his sister to sleep as they said their evening prayers alone and lost in the haunted forest. Gray had a beautiful tone perfectly suited for Gretel and her natural acting was genuinely touching. The two of them sounded and acted well together, playing off each other as they ultimately brought the evil Witch to her deserved demise.
Eve Orenstein as the Witch was simply impeccable. Her rich tones and nasty laughs were the very embodiment of the classic character, adorned in classically tacky holiday glitz and glitter as though she were one of Santa’s mother elves gone awry. She, as well as her costume, made a stark, colorful contrast to the all-white set. Her characterization was humorous and fun and you found yourself instantly loving to hate her.