The Christmas season is the time when classical music institutions make money. Washington’s choruses fill the city’s concert halls with carols and Messiah sing-alongs, a capella choral groups descend with thematic holiday programs, and the Washington National Opera, this year, is presenting eight performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” (in English) as its annual holiday opera.
“Hansel and Gretel” is opera’s problem child. As a story, it’s geared for children; as an evening of music, it’s geared for adults (long and fairly sophisticated). Every year, I suspect it frightens as many children away from opera as it attracts, yet it represents tradition in a field primed to venerate tradition. The Washington National Opera has now presented several family holiday operas, some of them new, but only “Hansel and Gretel” has the recognition factor to merit eight performances.
I fall for it as much as anybody. Although I’ve never been a particular fan of the opera, as an opera-loving mother, when I saw the upcoming performances on the calendar, I had the Pavlovian and wholly illogical reaction that this was something to which I should try to take my 4-year-old son. During WNO’s perfectly capable and polished performance Saturday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, I realized, as I do every time I see this opera, that even abridged and sung in English, this is a pretty long evening. I doubt even the promise of the witch in Act II would have managed to keep my son from bailing about halfway through the first act.
Although “Hansel and Gretel” is a rare opera in which the second act has more payoffs than the first (the witch! the gingerbread house!), I’m not sure even world-class singers can turn it into an evening that can excite a newcomer to this art form. Saturday’s cast, most of them members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, sang ardently and prettily and were perfectly fine.
More than fine was Aleksey Bogdanov, a Domingo-Cafritz alumnus who is by way of becoming a WNO stalwart this season; he stood out not only because of his warm, confident singing but because he, almost alone among the cast, could be understood. Ariana Wehr sang prettily and danced well as Gretel, Aleksandra Romano’s Hansel had a full voice with a few pitch issues, and Kerriann Otaño’s Witch was suitably maniacal, though incomprehensible. Daryl Freedman, who made a good impression in WNO’s evening of new works the other night, here sounded a little shrill; the full singing in the part of the mother evidently challenged her. Raquel Gonzales was lovely as the Sandman.
But the problem isn’t really the performances, or Sarah Meyers’s bright, shallow, hammy staging (best moment: the children’s chorus, rescued from a life as gingerbread men, in bright wool knits — costumes by Timm Burrow — at the end), it’s our search for ways to make kids like opera and our idea that there must be a special way to do it. If there isn’t a perfect opera for kids — and I think “Hansel and Gretel” is certainly no worse than, say, Rachel Portman’s “The Little Prince,” which WNO offered as its holiday opera last year — you could argue it’s because opera is not a contemporary medium.
To judge from my own memories, and friends’ anecdotal experiences, I think that singers performing arias and scores from “grown-up” operas might be more beguiling for children, and more calculated to further the cause of making them like opera, than supposedly “kid-friendly” operas that aren’t very good. But nobody claims to have found the magic bullet yet, and more power to WNO for committing to, and continuing, the exploration.
“Hansel and Gretel” continues through Dec. 20 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.