As a child, I never had much use for the opera “Hänsel und Gretel.” When I was taken to the opera, it was to see grown-up stuff, or at least what passed for it: “The Barber of Seville!” “The Merry Widow!” “Ariadne auf Naxos!” (The latter was a rude awakening. But at least it was grown-up.) Looking down on Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hänsel,” though, was a sign of my own faux-snobbery. “Hänsel und Gretel,” which the Washington National Opera brought to the Terrace Theater on Friday, is in many ways a far more grown-up opera than “Barber.”
It isn’t often treated as such, of course. It’s family fare, and that’s how it was presented here, as the first in what’s to become an annual WNO tradition of holiday operas. But although the plot is Grimm — boy and girl meet witch in gingerbread house — and the opera is full of charming little tunes, Humperdinck’s work effectively administers to both of these aspects a stiff adult drink. The opera starts out by framing the children’s parents in such a dark and unflattering light that it’s hard to construe reunion with them as a happy ending. And the charming little tunes stud a rich, veritably Wagnerian score. I find it more interesting every time I hear it, but it may be rich fare for a kid who hasn’t seen opera before.
WNO’s production by David Gately, originally seen in 2007, takes a kind of jazzy Technicolor stance: Hänsel and Gretel and their family are drab and brown in real life, but in the third act, as fairies and witches and enchanted children appear, things get brighter and brighter and less and less real. (Is it all wish fulfillment, an unreal dream of a happy ending?) The Sandman, who helps the children drift off to sleep after they get lost in the woods at the end of Act II before intermission, slouched on and off stage looking not unlike Amelia Earhart; but the Dew Fairy who wakes them at the start of Act III was a cloud of rainbow tulle and gold. Both roles were prettily sung by Jessica Stecklein, an alumnus of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists’ program.
Other Domingo-Cafritz alums, Emily Albrink and Sarah Mesko, took the title roles on Friday and Saturday night (the two matinee performances were sung by current Domingo-Cafritz artists). Albrink has been something of a company staple, and she offered an attractive sound, if occasionally wayward pitch, as Gretel; while Mesko, padded to reduce the appearance of womanly curves, was an appealing and solid Hansel. María Eugenia Antúnez, a current Domingo-Cafritz singer, sang Gertrud, the children’s mother, with a hard, clear sound and made the most of the opera’s least sympathetic role, while Norman Garrett, also on the current roster, made some fine sounds, though showed a tightness in his upper notes, as Peter, their inebriated father. All four of these artists fell prey to the hyperactivity that seems to dog opera acting in general today and acting for children in particular.
Gately and his costume designer, Timm Burrow, hit a nice balance with the witch, who was colorful and obnoxious without being overly scary, garbed in an outfit that evoked colorful holiday neckties, and played by Corey Evan Rotz like a malevolent Dame Edna. In the pit, Michael Rossi, another Domingo-Cafritz veteran, conducted the eight instruments as if he had the full Wagnerian forces in front of him, though the presence of the piano somewhat hampered the full effect.
Because of my own childhood resistance to this opera, and my acute awareness of the longeurs it may hold to contemporary kids (a babyish plot fused with long and slow music is a tricky combination), I’m sometimes nervous, sitting in an auditorium surrounded by pretty little girls in fancy dresses, that more of them will be turned off than won over. But there’s something to be said for teaching kids that there’s a payoff for sitting through something long. The witch is arguably funnier because you have to wait for her to appear; there was an audible murmur from the audience when she was first heard, and much delight when she waspulled from the oven after baking, transformed into an ornery-looking piece of gingerbread.
A lot of great, so-called adult art makes you work for its charms. “Götterdämmerung” involves a long setup and a bang-up ending; so do many Henry James novels; so do a lot of other acquired and arguably old-fashioned tastes. Most kids may not grow up to love those either, but it’s worth exposing them to the idea that entertainment is not always about pandering; sometimes, it involves patience.