Review: ASU's 'Hansel and Gretel'
Hang around long enough in any college town with a classical voice program, and you’ll likely have a chance to see Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera, “Hansel and Gretel.”
The Appalachian State University Hayes School of Music recently produced a straightforward version of this opera with an all-student cast and orchestra. I attended last Friday evening, meaning I saw one of two casts who were alternating performances.
Most English-speaking Americans are familiar with the Brothers Grimm version of “Hansel and Gretel,” and this opera fulfills most of our expectations. Hansel and Gretel are from a poor family, and the mother, played this night by Rebekah Holland, throws them out of the house from frustration at having nothing to feed them, rather than from any stepmother’s jealousy.
After seeing that her children spilled the only food they had for supper, Mother sends them into the woods to pick berries for dinner, but Father, robustly sung by David Clark, comes home shortly thereafter with plenty of food from his success at the market. Mother confesses to sending Hansel and Gretel to the woods, and Father sings with dismay about the witch who lives there.
When we next see Hansel and Gretel in the woods, night is falling. The Sandman visits the children in the comforting guise of Leanne Agee, a lovely singer costumed in pink and gold, sprinkling glitter around the children’s sleeping place. Hansel and Gretel stay awake long enough to sing “Evening Benediction,” which for good reason is the most famous piece of music in this opera. Paulina Villarreal and Andrea Howland-Myers as Hansel and Gretel, respectively, deliver this touching duet beautifully.
The next morning, when the siblings awaken and feast upon the newly appeared gingerbread house, the Witch reveals herself. Portrayed Friday by Johnny Harmon, this green-faced Witch seems more comic than threatening, playing the drag element rather broadly. The Witch traps the children for her infamous cannibalistic purposes and lights a fire in a phone-booth-sized oven with smoke pouring out the top.
The opera ends traditionally for the most part, with the children outwitting the Witch and reuniting happily with their parents. However, in Humperdinck’s version, a large children’s chorus is also revealed, freed from traps previously set by the Witch.
The performance was consistently well sung, with Villarreal doing a particularly nice job of playing a little boy simply and convincingly. Joseph Amaya, the director, and Joel Williams, the stage director, successfully balanced conveying the story through strong vocals, while allowing the singers freedom of movement. The student orchestra was conducted by Cornelia Laemmli Orth of East Tennessee’s Symphony of the Mountains. The whimsical set design by Michael Helms suited the theatrical limitations of the Rosen Concert Hall, and Alice Neff’s costume design was especially charming on the Opera’s magical characters.
A simple answer to the question of why universities frequently produce “Hansel and Gretel” may be that the music is lovely, and most audiences know the narrative. The heroes of this tale are children, but, like many classic fairy tales, “Hansel and Gretel” has dark overtones involving poverty, witchcraft and danger of the unknown.
Perhaps the deeper story is about resisting childhood appetites and confronting fears of what lies outside the home in the larger, unknown world. Sounds like a perfect show for college audiences.