The holidays are in full swing, and Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic “Hansel and Gretel” has gloriously returned to the LA Opera stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion after a twelve-year absence, with select dates now through December 15th. The classic children’s fairy tale, which premiered in December 1893, is the perfect production to cap off the year. Its imaginativeness not only appeals to younger audiences, while also introducing them to the German opera (albeit sung in English), but it’s also engaging for adults, who can’t help but be spellbound by the fantastic presentation and story, which was written by Adelheid Wette — Humperdincks’s sister (Richard Sparks wrote the English libretto). Wette based the plot, which was originally meant to be just an in-home play performed by her children for their father’s birthday, on the Brothers Grimm novel from 1812 with the exception of some added phantasmagoric elements that make the opera even more winsome.
The inventive plot plays off the heroism of a pair of siblings, whose innocence turns into an ingenuity and a heartwarming triumph over evil in their midst. Hansel and Gretel, a young boy and his sister, whose oft-famished family makes and sells brooms to survive and subsist, are sent off by their exacting but well-meaning mother, Gertrude, into a mysterious forest to forage for strawberries. Their father, Peter, who subsequently arrives with much food to share after a serendipitous day of broom sales, agitatedly informs his wife that he has heard of children being baked and turned into gingerbread by a nefarious witch in the woods. With a tailspin of improbable events that happen upon the children, including the appearance of surreal spirit creatures and supernatural characters like the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, Hansel and Gretel come face to face with their own bravery when they ultimately encounter the Witch and her candied house.
The director, Doug Fitch, who also pulls triple duty as the scenic and costume designer, brings a superbly paced and lush narrative that keeps the audience engrossed as we track Hansel and Gretel’s playfulness, as well as their support of one another when stumbling upon their unearthly surroundings. Fitch’s stage design lends itself to a great immersion from the moment we see interlocked puzzle pieces filling the proscenium become disassembled to introduce us to Hansel and Gretel’s world and home, positioned on a optically unique sharp incline. Of course, much magic abounds on the stage as well, thanks to gargantuan mushrooms that glow exultantly, as well as a procession of magical critters with beaming eyes, including a purple gnome, gecko, a vivified branch, a small bear with an owl on his head, a Gumby-like being, and much more. There is no end to the enchantment, as audience members might also find themselves becoming hungry at the sight of well-constructed props that accurately signify mouth-watering victuals.
Conductor James Conlon stays delightfully true to the intent of Humperdinck’s beautiful music, beginning with the “evening prayer” foreshadowing in the overture, which later materializes again with themes pertaining to the naive and unbounded effervescence of childhood and the untouchable purity and goodness of family. Certainly, “Hansel and Gretel” is very much in line with what a Wagnerian opera entails (and, in fact, Humperdinck himself was a music tutor for Richard Wagner’s son, Siegfried) by thusly being effective at using leitmotifs, otherwise defined as repeated musical phrases that intertwine and guide the development of its characters.
At the forefront are mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (in her LA Opera debut) and soprano Liv Redpath, a staple of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, who portray Hansel and Gretel, respectively. The two share a convincing chemistry as compassionate siblings who stay relatively optimistic despite the pangs of hunger. Their rice cream dance will make attendees smile (“tap your heels, tap your toes, this is how the rice dance goes”), which not only includes tables and chairs that come alive (a testament to Fitch’s creativity), but will also see Cooke do the “floss” to the roar of many onlooking children. Vocally, Redpath and Cooke sound smooth and wholesome in Act I when they sing their “Cuckoo” ditty, and particularly in Act II when, upon waking from atop a large hedge in the forest, dulcetly recall of the guardian animal angels who encircled and stood vigil at their slumber.
While Hansel and Gretel’s parents only appear at the outset and at the end of the opera, they are played in underrated fashion by Melody Moore (Gertrude) and Craig Colclough (Peter). The juxtaposition of their characters’ temperaments is fascinating for there is the tough-love wrath of Gertrude, who is at first intimidating, when she, with her overwrought face projected ten-fold on the exterior of her home excoriates her “silly, disobedient children.” Then, there is Colclough’s Peter, who immediately has attendees laughing when he “ra-la-la-las” onto the scene and it becomes clear that he comparatively sees the brighter side of life, taking his ultimate solace in the panacea of beer (“life is drear, but beer brings cheer”). Peter is at once cynical and joyous – and absolutely infectious – as he basks in his good fortune of seemingly neverending store-bought goods; it is doubtlessly a credit to Colclough’s performance, which is both uplifting and heartfelt when appropriate.
Moreover, as the fairy dust-sprinkling protectors of the protagonist siblings are Taylor Raven as the lullaby-singing Sandman and Sarah Vautour as the Dew Fairy, the latter of whom wears a costume by Fitch that has to be seen to be believed (imagine a massive purple cone with the upper body of a platinum-hair-spiked sweet sorceress emanating from its tapered-off top).
Of course, the most powerful of the paranormal characters is the youth-envied Witch, depicted by the Grammy Award-winning Susan Graham, who has the time of her life on stage. Graham, who has roguish yellow hair, a pink dress and yellow stockings, offers an energetic mischievous wickedness to the role from the time she first implores Hansel and Gretel with “Come, I beg you humbly, will you join my fambly?” The admirable Graham isn’t afraid to look eccentric, and instead embraces the adversarial jauntiness of her persona, with a charisma and physical presence that is all-encompassing and entertaining to watch. And as sly and insidious as the Witch is, we can’t help but grin when Graham spins a cake on her finger, like a globetrotter, and waltzes around with her spell-casting spoon and elegantly whisks away with her broom (a credit to the movement director, Austin Spangler). Graham commits to the Witch without hesitation and the results are brilliant.
Overall, with the familial warmth and love that takes precedence during the holidays, Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” remains pertinent to the ebullient imagination of children and their doting parents. Doug Fitch’s vision, in addition to James Conlon’s conducting, has bred an amazing visual soundscape of otherworldly wonders. When, at long last the captive children (played by talented members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus) are freed from their gingerbread avatars and excitedly celebrate, we too, including adults and younger ones alike, share in their triumph.
For more information about “Hansel and Gretel,” please visit laopera.org