Hansel and Gretel at the LA Opera Review - An Empty Candy Box

Hansel (Lucy Schaufer) and Gretel (Maria Kanyova) lost in the wood

The Los Angeles Opera production of "Hansel and Gretel" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is a triumph of design over content.  If you want to take your kids or the kid in you to see a magical pageant unfold on stage, then this is the opera for you.  You don't have to be an opera buff, or even like opera, because in this production there are times when what is happening visually is so interesting you forget to pay attention to the singers. The voices blend in with the orchestra to make a pleasant musical backdrop to the pantomime extravaganza unfolding on stage.

Director Douglas Fitch is a visual artist who grew up around puppets.  He has designed homes for musicians and created edible art, all elements that combine stunningly in this production.  It would have been nice if he had spent more time in theater, where the techniques are all about exposing the emotional arc of the characters and bringing the audience to experience the story as their own.  Here, one remains outside the story admiring the display of one man's virtuoso imagination.  Eye candy, but as the story instructs, true food is not some fairy tale house of sweets.

The Witch is a vaudeville creation, played by Graham Clark in drag

If you want to listen to the actual singing, the task is made more difficult by a new translation by Richard Sparks that is affected instead of affecting.  Phrases pause to wait for the music to catch up, causing the listener to lose the thread of thought. Pithy modern idioms punctuate convoluted 19th century poetic syntax.   Little thought seems to be given to what vowel sound should rest on important notes in the score.  The overall effect is flat and literal-minded, the opposite of the exotic and visionary decor.  Occasional witty turns of phrase are extremely clever, but cleverness does not serve this particular work.

The opera itself was originally created as a family diversion by Engelbert Humperdinck (not the pop star) in the late 19th Century.  His sister, Adelheid Wette,  had written a kindler, gentler version of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale for her children in which Hansel and Gretel merely get lost after being unfairly scolded and punished for playing by their mother.  (One wonders if this is based on something that happened in the family home for which mama was trying to apologize.)  Adelheid asked her brother to set it to music.   Later, they took their family entertainment and turned it into a three-act opera and scored an immediate success with it.  The full opera retains the naive, folklike style and gentle bedtime story quality of the original.  Full of affection and love and lacking in pretension and irony, not to mention the richer, darker violent strains of the original fairy tale, that opera has been buried deeply under the Maurice Sendak-like parade of characters and Las Vegas magic sets of the LA Opera production.

The spirits of the wood gather around the sleeping pair

Perhaps the result of softening the Brothers Grimm is a watered-down story and this production was trying to save a bland and two-dimensional work from itself. There's nothing wrong with the music; but then again there's nothing wonderful either.  This could be the fault of the original score or the production.  The production certainly never lets an empty moment pass.

The Dew Fairy (Stacy Tappan) floats over the sleeping children as morning arrives

For all the marvels, the result is not marvelous. Scene changes take so long that an production that should have been an hour and a half lasted two.  For children, and this production is aiming to be the opera equivalent of the perennial ballet favorite, 'The Nutcracker', that extra half-hour is too much to ask.  Fitch does his best to make the time pass easily.  As the overture plays, the opening curtain becomes so much more than just a curtain, with illusions of running water and smoke from a chimney. 

Gretel (Maria Kanyova) is scolded by her mother, enormous and looming on a video screen

The forest moves in and out guided by fantastical spirits with illuminated eyes.  But enough is enough.  I 'missed' Gretel's account of her dream because I was occupied watching the forest transform and the witch's gingerbread house come into view.

The most powerful moment, the one most in keeping with the opera buried in this production comes at the end.  Hansel and Gretel free the gingerbread children enchanted by the witch and the chorus that appears is a chorus of actual children.  The relief at seeing and hearing them is briefly overshadowed by bizarrely complex choreography that forces them to abandon all naturalness in their desire to do all the moves. A few minutes later, they are all huddled in a frightened group until Hansel and Gretel see that the intruders are in fact their parents.  The brother and sister race to embrace their parents and explain what  has happened.  Then the parents open their arms and the mass of frightened children rush to them and the safety of their embrace.  In that moment, I felt an upswell of great emotion and tears came to my eyes.  This is what this opera can and should do.  Children need great art that connects with this, their vulnerability and our promise to protect them as they explore and grow.  

There are moments when the melodies and the singers break through it all for some lovely interludes in the action.  The lullaby duet sung by Hansel (Lucy Schaufer ) and Gretel (Maria Kanyova) cuts through the chaos for a sweet moment of genuine childhood vulnerability.  The Sandman's lullaby, sung by Christine Brandes, was also lovely.

The Sandman ( Christing Brandes) sings the brother and sister to sleep

The men had the audience pleasing roles.  Donnie Ray Albert brings on the charming, cheerful presence of the Father and his comic 'beer' song.  The witch is also played by a man, Graham Clark, who is given a pure vaudeville turn as the witch.  The style, the visual jokes - Hansel is magically fattened by literally blowing up like a balloon, his body being replaced by a giant pneumatic doll - please the audience with gags that work in the moment but undo any momentum the score might be trying to build.

Hansel (Lucy Schaufer) has been fattened by the witch (Graham Clark)

We live in an age where image is everything.  For those who want to see a spectacle with music, this production will be a treat.  For those who want to hear an opera where the beauty derives from a perfect blend of music, lyric and voice, this one does not live up to its packaging.

Hansel and Gretel at the Los Angeles Opera

Music by Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921)
Libretto by Adelheid Wette (1858-1916)
English libretto by Richard Sparks

Half Price Tickets for Kids 16 and Under
Must call 213.972.8001 or order in person at LA Opera Box Office. This performance not recommended for toddlers and infants.

Sunday     November 19, 2006     2:00 p.m.
Sunday     November 26, 2006     2:00 p.m.
Wednesday     November 29, 2006     7:30 p.m.
Saturday     December 2, 2006     7:30 p.m.
Wednesday     December 6, 2006     7:30 p.m.
Saturday     December 9, 2006     2:00 p.m.
Thursday     December 14, 2006     7:30 p.m.
Sunday     December 17, 2006     2:00 p.m.
Lucy Schaufer     HANSEL
Maria Kanyova     GRETEL
Graham Clark     WITCH
Luana DeVol     GERTRUDE
Donnie Ray Albert     PETER
Christine Brandes     SANDMAN
Stacey Tappan     DEW FAIRY
CONDUCTOR - Alan Gilbert
DIRECTOR - Douglas Fitch
DESIGNER - Douglas Fitch

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