News Column

Performance a treat for all

November 18, 2013


Nov. 18--Both on Friday and Saturday evenings, not surprisingly but still a wonder to behold, the audience that gathered in the Musical Arts Center for performances of "Hansel and Gretel" included a multitude of children. Even toddlers were spotted, bravely carried in by moms and dads. And what do you know: not even from those really young ones were there wails or other sounds of boredom or discontent, at least from what I could discern.

To the contrary, all seemed contentment in the house, save for the naughty, nasty Witch, who got her come-uppance in the oven she had used to turn children into gingerbread. There were, of course, two Witches in this Indiana University Opera Theater production to go along with the usual two-cast policy. Both Witches served up hilarity, Charles Lyon Stewart on Friday and Jake Williams on Saturday.

You read that right: Charles and Jake, two tenors. Sometimes, these days, the role of the Witch, historically preserved for mezzo sopranos or contraltos, is turned over to males for their outsized stature, outstretched physicality and outlandish drag. To those attributes, Stewart and Williams added outrageous hamming, which means they honored the role and brought gobs of gusto and fun to the proceedings.

Definitely to the good, but remember that two acts precede the appearance of the Witch. Those acts, thanks to composer Engelbert Humperdinck, contain a buffet of goodies and sweets that must be well taken care of for a production of "Hansel and Gretel" to succeed.

That means there must be scenery to help put viewers in the right frame of mind. The current "Hansel and Gretel" features the picturesque sets creatively designed by Max Rothlisberger a couple of decades ago. This time around, one welcomed updates, including a new gingerbread house and sundry environmental details contributed by Mark Smith and some fancy/flashy lighting executed by Julie Duro. Everything seemed to enhance the Rothlisberger magic, inviting us to enter the make-believe world of the brothers Grimm and the gentler place that Adelheid Witte had in mind when she asked her brother Engelbert to write music for a "Hansel and Gretel" performance piece she planned as a gift for her family.

"Goodies and sweets" mean two acts of prior stage action that establish the fairy tale's other characters, including the duo in the title, and that tell us how and why those characters end up meeting the evil Witch. A knowing and gifted stage director is needed to guide the goings-on. That the production had in Vince Liotta, who knew when the tale should aim for a believe-in-the-unbelievable reaction from the audience and when slapstick humor was called for.

The opera also has two prior acts of lush and luscious music that Humperdinck composed, music to which only a very capable orchestra can do full justice. In the IU Philharmonic, the production had that. And it had, in conductor Arthur Fagen, an authoritative leader with the intuitive feel for the score's romantic and dramatic essences, along with the capability to bring the best out of his musicians in the pit and those on stage. He managed to control, and hold to a minimum, the balance problems that can crop up when youthful voices encounter the opera's orchestral line of sometimes Wagnerian dimensions.

The performances benefited from well-cast, strong-voiced, impish, boyish Hansels (Amanda Russo on Friday and Meghan Folkerts on Saturday) and from Gretels (Jessica Beebe and Siena Forest) who handled their vocal line very nicely and endowed their portrayals with vulnerability but also a necessary big-sister attitude seasoned by a strain of independence and mischief matching that of Hansel's.

Deniz Uzun and Kelsea Webb gave personality to the children's harried mother. Robert Gerold and Andrew Richardson brought out the father's happy-go-lucky nature. All four carried their musical weight as well. Mathilda Edge and Carey Jarosik as the Sandman and Brooklyn Snow and Shin-Yeong Noh as the Dew Fairy managed their brief but important arias satisfactorily.

The 14 angels that protect Hansel and Gretel as they sleep in the deep, dark forest are dancers from the IU Pre-College Ballet; they did beautifully, thanks to director Doricha Sales and choreographer Christian Claessens. And the children saved from their gingerbread fate when the Witch's oven exploded were played exuberantly and sung sweetly by members of the IU Children's Chorus, directed by Brent Gault.

The production is sung in English, but to make sure every word is understandable, supertitles are provided. They rhyme and are the work of Cori Ellison.


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