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.
Peter, the children’s father, and Gertrude, their mother, were sung by bass-baritone Cesar Rospigliosi and mezzo-soprano Joan Peitsche respctively. Rospigliosi seemed to have some difficulty with the higher tessitura of the role, but made up for it by bringing to this under-appreciated role the jollity and spirit that only a buffo can truly appreciate doing. Peitsche’s portrayal of the mother, sung with a lusciously full voice, made you sympathetic to her desperation in not being able to feed her innocent children. Brett Kroeger, as the Sandman/Dewfairy, sang with a nice soprano that was at times a little piercing and sometimes flat. However, she brought a motherly warmth to the two roles that made you believe she really was the children’s beautiful guardian angel.
Pianist Wilson Southerland tackled the score from the first glissando of the overture right though to the final triumphant chords with a bravura that would have impressed even Humperdinck himself. His masterful playing transformed the tiny upright piano into a symphony of opulent melodies and lush Wagnerian chords.
This beautifully simple production was limited only by the confines of the audience’s imagination. It was an excellent choice for the amateur opera-goer and delighted even the haughtiest of opera queens. Every child, and child-at-heart, left the theater with a smile on his face and a little respect for this small company as it struggles to find its footing in the NYC opera scene. Despite its limited budget, Opera Manhattan’s production came across as highly professional and welcoming.
If you cringe in abhorrence over the grandeur of Met spectacles that fail to impress or rarely give you goosebumps, then this production really was a must-see. However, it only played for one weekend, which is a shame when you think of how much effort went into producing this deliciously delightful show. Hopefully, next year will see an extended run by this brave little company – the little opera company that could.
Opera Manhattan moves forward in mid-February with its One-Act Opera Festival, which will include pieces such as Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and a double bill of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. If Hansel and Gretel was any measure of what this company and its multitude of talented singers are capable of, then these three pieces are surely going to be a sight to behold. More information is available on the company website.
Photo courtesy of Ken Howard.