In review: Hänsel & GretelReview
I went and saw one of my favourite operas last night: Hänsel and Gretel, by Engelbert Humperdinck, based on the creepy Brothers Grimm fairytale. I think it’s a show that transports itself well on small and large stages, with small and large orchestras and even pianos. So it was great to see this production by Metro Youth Opera in an intimate space, where we could see subtle moments and get to know the characters more quickly. The production is directed by Alison Wong; I loved that it made me look twice at the piece, and at the story that I already know well. Alison really found specificity in the German text, which you could see throughout the cast. That text-first starting point is what makes Hänsel and Gretel a compelling story, even without Humperdinck’s large orchestra (or the Met’s budget).
Metro Youth Opera’s aim is to provide professional performance opportunities to young opera singers, and I was impressed with the strength of the cast. Lyndsay Promane and Kate Applin played Hänsel and Gretel, and I thought they were just perfect. Kate was young and unselfconscious, but with real charm and grit; we liked her right away. Lindsay’s portrayal of Hänsel was one of the most convincing “pants roles” I’ve ever seen. She was uncanny as a lanky, awkward preteen who’s still nice to his sister; all foal-like and disarmingly honest. Kate and Lindsay had real sibling energy together onstage; they made it clear to the audience that Hänsel and Gretel get along and look out for each other, an important thing to establish for the rest of the show. I loved watching them wander through the big city’s streets (taking the place of the deep, dark woods), looking at everything and everyone with child-like frankness.
As the Mother, Kelsey Vicary was terrifying. Vocally, she made a splash with her first shrieking lines; she had tons of power, and the largest voice we had yet heard. She also played “mom-stressed” really well. I think one of the scariest feelings as a kid was the awareness that your mom was stressed out, and Kelsey reminded me of that. Her bad-cop parenting was a great foil to Peter Bass, the Father. He appeared as a happy drunk, showing off an easy top register in his first aria. I was glad that Peter showed us a Good Dad, not a drunk or a deadbeat (as is often the case in some productions); his voice has an open and benevolent quality, so it suited his dramatic choices. Together, Kelsey and Peter portrayed an honest married couple; I’d seen their Act I scene many times, but this time I saw the relationship differently.
As the Witch, Stephanie Tritchew had huge vocal power and a pretty fierce laugh. Dramatically, I felt her less compelling than her castmates. Her witch-style was part Stepford-wife, part CEO, with a remote control for a wand; I think Stephanie’s more calculated, calm Witch made her outbursts really effective, but I suppose I wanted her to be more exaggerated, and unpredictable. It’s a tricky role in that the Witch is expected to make a huge splash in a relatively short amount of time onstage. Vocally, Stephanie was fantastically overbearing; I felt her character was comparatively understated. The Witch’s child victims were played by ten members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, who were sufficiently creepy in their vacant, Witch-induced trances.
As the Sandman, Karine White was great. She made her first entrance well before her aria, dressed convincingly as a homeless guy on the street. Karine has a sweet presence to match her voice, and it was a neat effect, sort of like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. I liked this take on the Sandman; it’s always a question for a director about whether or not the Sandman is a benevolent character. This Sandman, a homeless guy coming up to two innocent kids, made the audience felt the initial danger _and_ the goodness underneath a potentially scary exterior.
The Dew Fairy in this production was one of my favourite takes in the show. Alexandra Smither sang beautifully, although we saw her before we heard her. As night approached and Hänsel and Gretel were still stranded on the city streets, a lady of the night struts out and takes her post: it’s night-time, kids. The Dew Fairy hooker showed up the next morning, holding her shoes, and sang her aria about how great the morning is. Love it.
The set was minimal, and for the most part, it didn’t detract from the drama; our attention was certainly focused on the relationships between the characters onstage. The Witch’s scenes were when I felt the visual component was underwhelming. The gingerbread house was alluded to, using rectangular frames to show boxes in which the other kids were trapped by the Witch. I didn’t mind any of this, except there were moments where the minimal set design did not fill the needs of the music. Using orchestral interludes, Humperdinck writes magic-music that works like a movie score, and it leaves time for the audience to see a bit of magic.
I’m completely on board with a pared-down Hänsel and Gretel, done with piano, but I felt like there could have been musical cuts to those interludes instead; the drama wouldn’t have suffered. Music director Blair Salter did a great job tackling the hefty score at the piano; it’s not an easy play. There were musical moments that weren’t a good use of the possibilities of the piano. Without a full orchestra, I didn’t think the entire overture, for example, added to the show.
Details aside, I had a great time at Metro Youth Opera’s Hänsel & Gretel. And I got a little teary, as usual, during their evening prayer. Congrats, guys!
Hänsel & Gretel plays tonight at 7:30pm and tomorrow at 2:30pm; there’s still time to catch it, and you should. For details and tickets, click here.