Fairy tale sets make magic

 

Hänsel und Gretel

Indianapolis Opera

Clowes Memorial Hall

Nov. 21 and 23

The second production of Indianapolis Opera’s current season starred its sets, as designed by Maurice Sendak. German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (not the British pop star of the ’60s, whose real name was Arnold Dorsey), in writing the opera Hänsel und Gretel — his only real claim to fame — after the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale, created a perfect vehicle for Sendak’s talents: An ever-shifting montage of gnarled forest filled with spooky, oversized creatures; a huge, baleful, orange moon, together with the siblings’ meager house at the start; and the witch’s contrastingly audacious gingerbread house (which proved to have a life of its own) at the end stole one’s attention from the characters — and, to some extent, the music. Stage director Amy Hutchison had a lot to keep up with in this two-act (often given in three) opera lasting scarcely over two hours.

For one thing, there were the children — many, many children — all members of Henry Leck’s famous Indianapolis Children’s Choir. They appeared as silent backdrops scurrying hither and thither in the opening scenes around Hansel and Gretel’s household, while the two principals did the only singing. Their parents then entered, the father offering the only male voice in the entire production. In addition, two adults dressed as black cats, also non-vocal roles, appeared later as the witch’s pretended lackeys. While one could agree that they contributed a balletic element to the production, their absence would not really have been missed.

However, the Children’s Choir would indeed have been missed in the final scene, where they broke into a joyous chorale, celebrating our siblings’ victory over the witch. There they showed their vocal mettle, once again confirming their top-of-the-line reputation. We’ve heard this chorale a number of times prior: first in the Overture, then as the siblings’ prayer closing Act 1; it’s undoubtedly Humperdinck’s most recognized tune.

So what about the singers? Well, the best were soprano Marnie Breckenridge singing Gretel, mezzo Kirsten Gunlogson singing a pre-pubescent Hansel and baritone Victor Benedetti as the father. All three showed the most vocal control and, incidentally, were the only IO veterans in the cast; the rest were newcomers. Perhaps the most dominant of the production’s voices was that of mezzo Elizabeth Byrne singing both the mother and the witch. While one may not expect an evil witch wanting to bake children into gingerbread and then devour them to display a beautiful voice, Byrne’s delivery, in both roles, had mostly volume going for it. She gave us an occasionally off-pitch wobble, which made her witch’s role sinister and effective. And perhaps it worked nearly as well when she was the scolding mother. But how, for example, would she deliver when singing Carmen?

IO artistic director and conductor James Caraher once again led the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in a generally polished pit performance, a few slips intervening here and there. As in all post-Wagnerian operas, the action and the orchestra are continuous, with the Overture nicely anticipating many of the chief tunes heard throughout the two acts. For a German opera from the 1890s that premiered from the pit by Richard Strauss himself, the musical structure is entirely Romantic, showing none of the modernisms that were beginning to creep in elsewhere. Perhaps that contributes to Hänsel und Gretel’s remaining high on opera’s pop charts.

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