'Hansel and Gretel' for the Holidays

Brightly colored costumes and sets brought Humperdinck's
Brightly colored costumes and sets brought Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" to life at the Lincoln Theater Friday. (By Karin Cooper)
By Ronni Reich
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, December 10, 2007

As "Messiahs" and "Nutcrackers" begin filling concert halls and theaters, the Washington National Opera hopes to start a new tradition, the holiday family opera. Saturday, former and current young artists took up the idea at the Lincoln Theatre, with a sparkling English-language production of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel."

A contemporary and devotee of Wagner, Humperdinck set about writing a children's opera at the request of his sister, librettist Adelheid Wette. He stayed true to both ideals, interspersing German children's songs with grand orchestral interludes.

Humperdinck and Wette didn't quite represent Grimm's "Hansel and Gretel." In the opera, angels and prayer alleviate fear and hardship, and there's a happy ending.

This sweetened story came to life in a staging that looked like a comic book by Dr. Seuss. Bright colors and sharp angles abounded in Robin Vest's sets, Jeff Bruckerhoff's lighting and Timm Burrow's costumes; a forest full of curly-branched trees, dancers in animal costumes, a neon-clad Dew Fairy and an exploding oven were among the attractions.

To their credit, the singers were never upstaged by the glitter. The matinee cast, consisting mostly of current young artists, turned out to be the more convincing. Claudia Huckle was equally notable for her luscious mezzo-soprano and her gleefully boyish Hansel. Soprano Elizabeth Andrews Roberts was a charming Gretel, with round, ringing high notes. As their wine-loving father, Nathan Herfindahl was a larger-than-life presence with a hearty baritone and clear, unfussy diction.

Aundi Marie Moore, slated to sing the part of Mother in both the afternoon and evening, was ill. She sang the matinee, showing promise of a clear, strong soprano, but vocal fatigue was evident. In the evening, mezzo-soprano Magdalena W¿r sang the role from the pit, while Moore walked the stage. W¿r also sang the Witch in both performances, displaying admirable stamina and control -- and a terrific cackle. Also doing double duty (technically, quadruple duty) was JiYoung Lee as the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. Members of Stuart-Hobson Middle School joined the delightful children's chorus.

In the evening, Leslie Mutchler as Hansel and Amanda Pabyan as Gretel gave polished performances; Mutchler's upper range was particularly striking. Trevor Scheunemann showed off a rich, gleaming voice and had fun as a cartoonish father.

Holding a trill while dancing in a circle (or riding a broomstick) has its challenges, and director David Gately balanced physical demands with singers' needs -- all too rare a skill. Conductors Benjamin Makino in the afternoon and especially Steven Gathman in the evening effectively navigated irregular rhythms and guided singers through non-tonal passages and some heavy orchestration.

The real test of the opera's success lay with the audience. As the crowd in miniature suits and party dresses gazed over the edge of the pit at intermission and applauded fanatically as the witch was turned to gingerbread, it was clear that the family opera was a great idea. As enjoyable as it is to rediscover classical music around the holidays, it's even better to experience it for the first time.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company