Thursday, February 13, 2020

Beautiful Voices and Life Sized Puppets Star in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”


Composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 storybook Opera, “Hansel and Gretel”, based on The Grimm Brother’s tale of the same name is the current fare at the Civic Center on Feb. 14th and 16th. This will be the third time in the opera’s history producing Humperdinck’s work.
Woodland Creatures checking out Hansel and Gretel while sleeping
Aside from glossing over Hansel (mezzo-soprano Blyhte Gaissert) and Gretel’s (soprano Sara Gartland) dilemma of having no food in the cupboards and being sent out into the woods, some of the darker sides of this morality tale (don’t take candy from strangers/ never let the kids out alone in a dark woods, etc.) are glossed over more to suit the youngsters sensibilities than satisfy their adult counterparts.
Soprano Devon Guthrie ( standing) is Sandman
Soprano Gartland and mezzo Gaissert are a perfect match in their respective roles of protective and more serious older sister to errant, trouble maker and fidget digit brother completely set on unnerving his sister. Their trek in the woods is where we find most of the puppets and this is where the story and music, for the most part picks up and piques our interest.
Baritone Malcom MacKensie is Peter and Soprano Marcy Stonika is Gertrude
The San Diego Opera Company with production design by The Old Trout Workshop for Vancouver Opera has its eye on the overall look of everything being larger and more threatening to life and safety of the youngsters in Humperdinck’s telling story of the two starving children at risk of being baked and turned into gingerbread cookies by the Wicked Witch (tenor Joel Sorensen is both puppeteer and witch) whose gingerbread house is snap -dag in the middle of the woods luring the hungry pair straight to its doorstep.
Sara Gartland and Blythe Gaissert outside the Witch''s house munching on something sweet.
The oversized cutouts outside and surrounding their home follow their trail (sans pebbles and/ or breadcrumbs) into the woods. They are banished by their cruel mother Gertrude (soprano Marcy Stonikas) to fetch strawberries in the woods to stave off their hunger.

Pickings are good at the outset, but as nightfall descends and the path back home is lost to the darkness, larger than life creatures loom over the children adding to the overall fright factor.

Hansel tries to comfort his sister and asks her to wait for the moon to come out so the light can protect them. It’s one of the more moving scenes of the night where the two lie side by side exhausted by their day of wandering in the woods. This is where we see the ghost like creatures lighting the night. . (“Evening or Children’s Prayer” of Fourteen Angels).
Willow Whisps in the woods
Back home, things get a bit testy when Peter, father/ husband/ broom-maker, -wearing seven-inch platforms, (baritone Malcom Mackenzie with a full and powerful voice) comes home with a bounty of food for the family, but finds the nest empty of children. He questions about he safety of the children out in the forest alone in the dark. They both set out to find them. It takes them on an all night trek.
Big Mouse

Under the direction of Brenna Corner and the baton of guest conductor Ari Peltro and with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra at its best, General Director David Bennett and his solid cast, including fourteen youngsters in the children’s chorus under the direction of Michael Green handling most of the stick puppets, an imaginative, oft whimsical and innovative evening of magic unfolds.

Soprano and Devon Guthrie is the Dew Fairy and Sandman (whose eyes and ears a bit off the grid) guiding Hansel and Gretel through a long night’s journey.

With some beautiful singing especially in the opening scenes with Sara Gartland’s taking command of keeping her brother in tow while Blythe Gaissert’s Hansel finds more ways to annoy her, the story gets under way with a young boy sitting alone on the stage appearing to read the tale.
Tenor Joel Sporensenis the Witch (photo by Edward Wilensky)
The harmonizing (don’t expect any big arias, the music is all in the story telling) between soprano and mezzo is simply lovely as the two stand toe to toe while their fate awaits them in this two hour, one intermission opera with Opera Text in English even though the opera itself is sung in English.

I took my grandson, who is in his twenties but this is his introduction to opera. We will run the gamut together from this season’s lineup of  “Aida”, “Hansel and Gretel” and “Barber of Seville” coming up in April. He is more than thrilled with this, new to him, art form.
Soprano Devon Guthrie as The Fairy accompanied by puppeteer Jason James Johnson
(Keep a lookout for a silhouette of Darth Vader in the shadow play.)

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Feb. 14th and 16th
Organization: San Diego Opera
Phone: 619-232-5911
Production Type: Opera
Where: 1100 3rd Ave., Downtown Dan Diego, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at 35.00
Web: sdopera.org
Venue: Civic Theatre
Photo Credit: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson


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