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Virginia Opera’s modern-day take on ‘Hansel and Gretel’

By Charles T. Downey,

The Virginia Opera, in the first full season since its board unceremoniously ousted founding director Peter Mark, is not playing it safe. After a gutsy “Aida” in October, the company’s new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” is anything but the usual cloying sort of December fantasyland staging for this opera. The audience at the George Mason University Center for the Arts was a little sparse, thinning out even more at intermission, perhaps missing the gingerbread house and candy canes.

Strong performances came from the young cast, especially the ardent Gretel of soprano Julia Ebner, the robust Dew Fairy of soprano Elizabeth Baldwin; and the acid-edged mezzo-soprano of Margaret Gawrysiak, as both the mother and the witch. The convincingly boyish Hansel of mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain was pleasing (in the sweet prayer duet, for example), if slightly underpowered, while baritone Eric Greene’s father was energetic but a little unfocused and wild at the top.

Countertenor Jason Abrams, cast unusually in the soprano role of the Sandman, produced the desired odd effect, but with an unsatisfying shrillness. Conductor Gerald Steichen led a relaxed performance from members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, with a reduced number of strings and a selection of woodwind and brass parts.

Director Kevin Newbury has updated the action to the present day, somewhere in the American hinterland blighted by the economic downturn. A struggling German family is traveling in a beat-up station wagon that rolls into an abandoned lot, dotted with telephone poles and overgrown weeds (sets by Mimi Lien), while the father tries to sell vacuum cleaners. While most of the opera was sung in English, the folk-song-like parts were sung in German, remembered nursery rhymes from the old country.

The children are terrorized by local bullies, members of the otherwise cute children’s chorus from the Governor’s School for the Arts, and wind up in an abandoned carnival among its creepy performers down on their luck — a sequin-jacketed Sandman, a tattoo-sporting Dew Fairy, and the proprietress of a fried dough and snack stand (costumes by Paul Carey). With the same singer playing the struggling mother and the junk food-pushing witch, the related issues of poverty, poor nutrition and child obesity seemed relevant. When the children had pushed the witch into the deep fryer, instead of an oven, one half expected the parents to show up with some healthy snacks and plans to plant a vegetable garden.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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