'Hansel and Gretel': An Irresistible Treat

"Hansel and Gretel" is presented by the Washington National Opera's Young Artists Program. (By Karin Cooper)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

Engelbert Humperdinck -- the original Engelbert Humperdinck, that is, not the '60s crooner who mysteriously adopted his name -- has gone down in history as a one-opera composer. Yet "Hansel and Gretel" (1893) is such a lovely work -- so welling over with melody, wonder and pure feeling -- that his place in the repertory is assured.

Last night, the Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program presented a likable abridged production of "Hansel and Gretel" at the Inter-American Development Bank's Cultural Center. The action was vaguely updated to a modern city: The staging was spartan in the extreme -- a ladder, some chairs, a few projections, a mostly black-and-white color scheme. The musical accompaniment was limited to piano and some genial imitations of a cuckoo by a solo flute.

Yet the young cast threw itself into its duties with such energy and sweetness that much of the opera's charm came through. As Placido Domingo, the Washington National Opera's general director, noted in his introductory remarks, everything about this production was assembled by the young artists in the training program -- not only the singing but also the direction, costumes and makeup -- and all had occasion to take pride in their work.

The members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program (it was originally named for the financier Alberto Vilar before the spectacular collapse of his fortunes) are in an enviable position. They are no longer students, and yet they are still at such an early stage in their careers that their performances positively glow with an eager, happy hunger, as they test their limits and try out new challenges. What a grand world it must seem, even on a day filled with so much bad news, as yesterday was.

Humperdinck's score affords those of us who love lush, close harmonies for joined soprano voices some of the juiciest passages this side of "Der Rosenkavalier" -- numerous duets and even some trios. Christina Martos brought grace and energy to the role of Gretel (her half-exuberant, half-bewildered aubade at the beginning of Act 2 was a delicious treat). Erin Elizabeth Smith made a fine, lanky Hansel, combining a heartfelt and affecting innocence with strutting, boyish bluster.

Leslie Mutchler was alternately fearsome and nurturing in both of her roles -- as Gertrude the frustrated mother and as the malevolent and seductive Witch (is there a Freudian in the house?). Baritone Obed Ureña played the Father with an abundance of high spirits, while JiYoung Lee piped gracefully as the Sandman. Chia Patiño directed the stage action and Steven Jarvi conducted and coordinated the piano and the singers.

There will be one more performance of "Hansel and Gretel" this evening at 7. The Cultural Center is at 1330 New York Ave. NW. Admission is free, but anybody over 15 must show a photo ID. For information, call 202-623-3774.

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