Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oberlin Opera Theater offers a visually imaginative and musically rich 'Hansel und Gretel'

November 13, 2013
By Mark Satola

Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” allows for a number of directorial choices. There are productions in which the role of the Witch is sung, buffo, by a tenor in drag, and sometimes the roles of Witch and Mother are taken by the same singer.

Last week’s production by the Oberlin Opera Theater (which used the German title rather than the English “Hansel and Gretel”) opted for a more traditional presentation that had many visual felicities as well as some outstanding performances by accomplished students from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra, ably conducted by Raphael Jimenez.

The spirit of Wagner hovers not far above Humperdinck’s fairytale. Like the music dramas fashioned by the master of Bayreuth, “Hansel und Gretel” is no Singspiel, with spoken interludes between musical numbers. Rather, it’s a through-composed cataract of melody, infused with the shapes of folk song and dance, with dramatic action brought to the same level of importance as the music.

Set designer Christopher McCollum’s painterly settings evoke a variety of visual sources. The cottage where Hansel and Gretel help make brooms for the family’s meager livelihood is rustic and rough, full of bare wood, open rafters, windows without glass and sticks of furniture, not far from Romantic engravings of Black Forest life.

The forest setting of Act 2 evokes, in its blue-and-tan palette and imaginative use of stylized silhouettes of trees, the visual world of Maxfield Parrish.

For the third act, set at the Witch’s house, McCollum gave us a crazy-quilt world of brilliant colors and jagged geometry, very much like the style of illustration found in modern children’s picture books, at once delightful and sinister.

In Oberlin’s production, guest artist and conservatory alumna Karen Jesse sang the very ripe role of the Witch who presides over the gingerbread house of horrors in the haunted Ilsenstein Forest.
Costume designer Chris Flaharty gave her a brightly colored hoop dress fashioned of panels of garish fabric, a pair of curled-up pointy boots and an Oliver Hardy derby, topping it with scary clown whiteface that exaggerated Jesse’s rich grimaces as she brought the Witch to terrifying life.

At Sunday’s matinee, the title roles were sung ably by Nicole Levesque (Hansel) and Emily Hopkins (Gretel). Director Jonathon Field made a significant choice for the scene in which Gretel teaches Hansel to dance. Instead of a charming lesson in steps and jollity, Field had the two children tussle, in a tit-for-tat escalation of petty aggression, lending an ironic dimension (and a certain realism) to the children’s “dancing.”

The complex role of the Mother was sung on Sunday by Oberlin junior Hannah Hagerty, who deserves special credit for her fine acting and her marvelous voice. She easily conveyed the conflict at the heart of the character, at once angry, frustrated, fearful and just plain famished.

Hunger is at the heart of “Hansel und Gretel,” and Hagerty’s intense reaction, when Father (sung well by Michael Davis) brings home an unexpected bundle of food, is quite believable.

Admittedly, no one in this tale by the Brothers Grimm is wholly exemplary, and Field’s staging is consistent in demonstrating this, though one wonders if it goes a bit too far. In the final scenes, when the Witch is thrust into the oven, Hansel holds her kicking feet down while she expires.

Afterward, where Humperdinck’s original conception has the Witch emerge from the oven as a gingerbread cookie, Field has her corpse dragged out and tossed onto the ground, whereupon Hansel, with his father’s ax, beheads the Witch and parades around the stage, holding the head up high by the hair. Too much?

Likewise, the final chorus of liberated children, with its words of piety and faith in God, is given a sinister undercurrent by having the children, scowling fiercely, rhythmically punctuate their hymn with thrusts of their clenched fists, evoking uneasy associations with German youth groups of recent history.

One prefers to remember the moment of pure, faux-naive beauty that concludes this production’s second act.

As Hansel and Gretel sing their evening prayer and fall asleep, the stars come out and a huge, Melies-like moon rises behind the trees, and, as it blossoms into a cascade of fluttering shapes (projected effects being a Field specialty), 14 youthful angels appear, descending from heaven to tuck the children in and bless their slumber with a round dance that is at once old-fashioned and timeless.

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