Monday, December 9, 2019

A ravishingly fine Judas Maccabaeus makes its mark with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in San Francisco


Nestled in the pages of biblical times, the story goes that Judas Maccabaeus led the Israelites to victory over the pagan Seleucids in the 2nd century BC. Centuries later, in 1746, Handel made him the subject of an oratorio in three acts by way of honouring the Duke of Cumberland in his victory over the Scottish army at the Battle of Culloden. Although not often widely performed in contemporary times, it’s a work brimming with Handel’s deftness at writing refined and gloriously orchestrated music for soloists and chorus alike. On Sunday afternoon, in the final of four performances in the San Francisco Bay Area, a full house at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church took the opportunity to hear the work presented by the meticulously prepared Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale under the baton of Nicholas McGegan.

Robin Johannsen as Israelitish Woman and Nicholas Phan as Judas
With an English libretto by Thomas Morell, who went on to write several librettos for Handel’s oratorios, it’s a rousing message for a call to arms to restore faith. For the Israelites, a hard-earned jubilant ending ensues that brings peace to its people and an alliance with the Romans against the Seleucid Empire. For contemporary ears, it is also a reminder of the countless chapters of unrest the region has endured.

If it was the only time you ever heard it in performance, Judas, personified by tenor Nicholas Phan, will be remembered as a distinguished and charismatic leader. Phan’s Judas was commanding and heroic, yet subtly youthful. And, in characteristic recitative followed by aria form, Phan’s recitatives were crystal clear and expressive, his arias radiant and alive. Taking centre stage midway through Act One, a rich and authoritative sound came in Phan’s first aria, “Call forth thy pow’rs”. What was to come impressed further. 

In Act Two’s “How vain is man”, in which Judas preaches God’s authority in guiding man’s victory in war, Phan’s powerful staccato runs and broad range brought much to his performance. Then, in “Sound an alarm”, multiple shades of drama in a voice as polished as the brass followed in what became a pageant of splendid orchestral results. And it’s all too rare having the double bass take the ear’s undivided attention but before all this majestic might, Kristin Zoernig let her instrument add its own ravishing highlight.

Robin Johannsen as Israelitish Woman and
Sara Couden as Israelitish Man
Judas’ younger brother Simon, instrumental in summoning the people after the death of his father Mattathias, stood comfortably, if somewhat left in Judas’ shadow, under the command of golden-grilled baritone William Berger. In Act One’s “Arm, arm, ye brave!” Berger struck with power and brought increased colour to Act Two’s “The Lord worketh wonders” and “With pious hearts”. 

As the remaining two leading soloists, mezzo-soprano Sara Couden and soprano Robin Johannsen made an impactful pair while showing great rapport as the Israelitish Man and Israelitish Woman respectively. They certainly get much of the frontline singing and most of the shining arias, the two heading the soloists out in a beautifully chartered duet “From this dread scene”. Johannsen’s bright and pure tones touched Act One’s “Pious orgies, pious airs” with sublime force at its most delicate and lulling. In Act Two’s “From mighty kings”, four lines of text burst forth in triumphant praise for Judas as Johannsen’s coloratura gleamed, taking to her music with seeming effortlessness.

Couden was a huge sensation in everything she delivered - a model performance leaving you in no doubt her star had ascended. The strength of Act Two’s “So rapid thy course is” seemingly heralded a grand future for her nameless Israelitish Man, turning the stave into an outstanding elastic beauty as she leapt from chest to head voice in what would make a coveted vocal lesson. Couden’s whopping cavernous lows came with unshowy pride and the audience couldn’t hold back the applause! Later, opening Act Three with “Father of Heav’n!” and imploring God’s blessing on festivities, Couden began with angelic strains before building up a masterpiece of succulent, mobilising voice.

Soloists, Chorus Director Bruce Lamott and
Conductor Nicholas McGegan
with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra 
Big moments, too, exist for a chorus of Israelites and the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale, a smallish number of 26 choristers, were a resounding group, singing with highly attractive and varied gradation while communicating their sentiments with a convincing air. Act Three’s “See, the conqu’ring hero comes!” was a spectacular showcase for chorus and orchestra in elevating Judas to God’s plane. 

Judas Maccabaeus often feels like it doesn’t say much in saying a lot. Still, as conductor Nicholas McGegan steered a thoroughly expert and tightly tuned orchestra, and offered the music up in a respectful and sensitive homage to Handel, the possibility of not hearing it again in performance struck me with a sense of sadness.


Judas Maccabaeus
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale
First Congregational Church, Berkeley, CA
8th December, 2019


Production Photos: Frank Wing

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Vivaldi's Farnace opens in an Australian premiere thrumming with astounding impact from Sydney's Pinchgut Opera


In the 21st century, baroque opera can still show it has the ingredients to make an astounding impact. Thank goodness the scholarship and craftsmanship exists to help it so. In yet another phenomenal showcase of the period’s musical brilliance from Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, and after more than 290 years since it premiered in 1727, Vivaldi’s Farnace received its Australian premiere on Wednesday night.

Christopher Lowrey as Farnace
Top to bottom, the entire cast sang miracle after miracle of the human voice’s capabilities to impress the ear and jolt the emotions and Artistic Director Erin Helyard’s signature whole-hearted conducting ensured Vivaldi’s assortment of flavoursome orchestrations received their most vividly depicted form. We owe much to Helyard, too, in piecing together the third act of the work after Vivaldi’s 1738 revision for the opera house in Ferrara in which Vivaldi had only completed the first two acts. Helyard has a knack for achieving seamless connections between music and drama and Farnace came to a triumphant finale with no exception. From the first thrumming chords, the musical landscape resounded and ballooned with exciting tempi and the superlative musicianship of Orchestra of the Antipodes never wained.

The opera’s story is set in ancient Pontus, a region in the modern-day eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. Farnace, its king - he is the son of Mitridate, who also features in Mozart’s early ‘opera seria’ Mitridate, re di Ponto - is on the edge of defeat against the Romans and he’s up against a series of battles with his enemies, his family and his conscience. Without detailing the nitty gritty, it’s a world where love seems in little supply while strong individual identities thrash out their thoughts and desires. In the end, however, love prevails over honour, duty and vengeance. But, for all the hatred, violence, scheming and looming murderous intent, every principal player manages to escape death in an almost incredulous but most uplifting conclusion.

Helen Sherman as Tamiri
Not a trace of museum-piece stuffiness is evident in Mark Gaal’s firmly planted and glossy direction that thrusts the plot forward and designer Isabel Hudson’s cleverly resolved design that translates space both as internal and external with dark and oppressive moods. Hudson’s u-shaped colonnaded set, with second level perimeter walkway accessed by ladder, provides an impressive backdrop as secret bunker, palace chambers and external surrounds. Black military attire prevails in this skyless and updated machine gun handled age, lit with variety and sharpness by Benjamin Brockman. Six bagged bodies hang from above in a reminder that perhaps everyone’s life hangs in the balance in a precipitous political climate. In all, it feels not too far from the reality of some modern day hotspots.

American-born countertenor Christopher Lowrey, who has shown the depth of his performance style in previous Pinchgut productions (as Tamerlano in Vivaldi's Bajazet and Didymus in Theodora), is every bit convincing in the title role as Farnace. Lowrey introduces Farnace as a heroic but heartless persona with a monumental edifice of vocal intensity and dexterity, demanding his wife Tamiri kill their son and herself to avoid falling victim to the enemy. When Farnace later believes his son to be dead, the anguish that Lowrey pours from the voice as he holds the boy’s toy gun in “Gelido in ogni vena”, becomes a long and riveting remorseful aria that signals a hint of Farnace’s heart to come in a brilliant close to Part One. Farnace, like everyone undergoes a transformation of sorts. When he later hears Tamiri’s outpouring of love for him, facing away from her and clearly gutted by his earlier decision, no doubt the tears welled for many, too, as Lowrey sang an utterly moving “Si, qualche nume o qualche stelle”, turned to her and took her hand while on his knees.

Jacqueline Dark as Berenice
How could he not? As Tamiri, Australian mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman (previously Poppea in L’incoronazione di Poppea and Irene in Bajazet for Pinchgut) had just delivered a melting and emotive “Sol da te, mio dolce amore” while Mikaela Oberg lended excellence on flute accompaniment. Sherman’s plush and agile sound filled the hall and soul with splendour in portraying Tamiri with maternal nature and self-determination. Not a skerrick of worthy attributes could be bestowed on mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark's hurricane force Berenice, Farnace’s mother-in-law who is in cahoots with the Roman leader Pompeo and wants Farnace dead in revenge for Farnace’s father having killed her husband. Caped and evil-eyed, Dark,  in her Pinchgut debut and whose impressive versatility in all things vocal, from musical theatre, cabaret and opera that spans the centuries, is a commanding presence as she puts a venomous bite to the text and pounds out her haunting aria of vengeance, “Da quel ferro”. But there's a jackknife turn and Berenice does come good. 

Soprano Taryn Fiebig is a playful and gorgeously starling voiced Selinda, Farnace’s loyal sister and a comic side dish whose agenda includes seducing the captain of Berenice’s army Gilade and the Roman prefect Aquilio. As Gilade, hearing the divinely bright and fluid countertenor of Max Reibl, winner of the 2017 Herald Sun Aria, is pure luxury. In a totally assured performance that includes giving the Midas touch to one of the highlights of the night, “Scherza l’aura lusinghiera”, surely an international career is his should he wish. Tenor Michael Petruccelli is muscled and powerful in voice as Aquilio and Timothy Reynolds’ warm tenor reflects a marginally merciful Pompeo.

I almost missed the opportunity to get to Sydney for Pinchgut Opera’s Farnace. Had I, one of the year’s highlights would have slipped from my experiences. The company have already brought home Best Rediscovered Work from the International Opera Awards for Hasse’s Artaserse. Undoubtedly, an award awaits Farnace as well.


Farnace 
Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall
Until 10th December 2019



Production Photos: Brett Boardman 

Moral hypocrisy exposed in a lavish spectacle comes to Melbourne in Opera Australia's Faust: Herald Sun Review

Published in Herald Sun Melbourne in print 3rd December 2019


Make a deal with the devil and suffer the consequences in a world where only god can provide salvation. That’s the far-reaching message in Gounod’s mid-19th century grand French opera, Faust, based on Goethe’s highly influential play. With more than a century of passing, its religious and moral fear-mongering might appear heavy-handed but the work still delivers a jolt.


Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Méphistophélès and the
Opera Australia Chorus
Not only is director David McVicar’s Faust for Opera Australia a lavish spectacle that surprises at every turn - right up to a devil in drag - it draws you in to contemplate its many directorial and scenographic choices that highlight, above all, moral hypocrisy. In its clever update from 16th century Germany to Second Empire Paris on the eve of the Franco-Prussian war, the juxtaposition of church, theatre and civic life is a constant source of intrigue.

The frail, old Faust gives himself to the devil in exchange for youth, falls in love with the innocent Marguerite and, coerced by Méphistophélès to pursue more than affection, gets her pregnant. Marguerite’s downfall is rapid, the tragedy pronounced by choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan’s multi-emotive Walpurgisnacht Ballet, its grotesque half-theatre, half-hallucination a brilliant summary as Marguerite is shamed while the ogling male aristocracy of the Paris Opera audience prey on their targets.


Maria Mudrya as Marguerite and Saimir Pirgu as Faust
On opening night, as the old Faust, an initial harshness in Saimir Pirgu’s striking volcanic tenor settled as he took on handsome youth with passion and wariness. In a Melbourne and role debut, Maria Mudrya detailed Marguerite’s trajectory with poignancy with her bright soprano but vocal shading was often insufficiently utilised despite reserves of thrilling power. 

There was a telling, sometimes likeable, side to Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ towering Méphistophélès as he morphed from one huge identity to another. Anna Dowsley was an all-round shiner as Siébel but baritone Luke Gabbedy was the night’s treasure in a seamless and devastatingly stirring turn as Marguerite’s protective but judgemental brother Valentin.

Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire dug deep to extract the ebb and flow of Gounod’s score without urgency and the thrillingly mobilised OA Chorus finished on a notably rousing level fit to please god. 


Faust 
Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 7th December 2019

4-stars 


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Friday, November 29, 2019

https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/reviews/hansel-and-gretel-in-concert-melbourne-symphony-orchestra/

Published online at Limelight Magazine 29th November 2019


I don’t usually talk much about favourites but if I were to compile a list of my top 100 favourite operas, German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel would be somewhere in the broad mix. The effervescent melodies and folk tunes, evocative musical landscapes and darker interjections that characterise Humperdinck’s three-act work, loosely based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, tell the story with immeasurable appeal. It premiered in Weimar on December 23, 1893, under the baton of Richard Strauss no less, and was an instant success. Often staged in the holiday seasons at Christmas time, it remains one of the great joys of opera.

Even without a cottage in the woods and a witch’s mouth-watering gingerbread house, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra took to the stage on Thursday night as a formidable musical force, engaging the imagination with vivid storytelling. Under the direction of outgoing Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis, they were the stars of the night.

From its opening, with the plaintive brass notes that give way to warm strings resonating like wind in the trees, the overture moved forward with inspired handling. It signalled what was to come as Davis emphasised the romantic score’s emotionalism while taking great care not to overegg its dramatic component. Part of the score’s dramatic workings come from Humperdinck’s synthesis of Wagnerian techniques, notably the use of leitmotifs, and every time they reappeared, their confidently delivered form resonated. If you are familiar with Wagner’s Fafner and Fasolt, you would swear they were lurking in the witch’s dark forest.

Sung in German with English surtitles, they were joined by Americans mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Hansel and soprano Laura Wilde as Gretel. The pair may not have been matched in height but these two expressive and pleasantly contrasting singers showed it wasn’t going to be an entirely static affair.

Dainty but direct and sensible, with a skip to her Gretel, Wilde brought ample brightness and feeling to her lines, though there was an occasional loss of clarity in the lower reaches of the voice. The unhurried and free-flowing nature Wilde brought to "There Stands a Little Man" charmed immensely and the beauty she could gather in the voice, turning it into powerful intent, was on splendid show as she woke up Hansel with some tickling.

DeShong’s Hansel was a little more moody and much more the scallywag. Singing with rich fruity assortment and sturdy support, DeShong delved deep and chartered high with a fullness in sound that resonated impressively. When it came to having to spend the night in the forest, DeShong could just as easily shine in the softest of territory. Together with Wilde, their "Evening Prayer" became a pearl encrusted gossamer veil in one of the most heavenly renditions possible. Davis underlined it sensitively, the silken strings leading magnificently to the Dream Sequence in a musical journey of adventure and tension that closed Act 2 before interval.

Returning home with a bagful of food to feed his impoverished family, James Clayton was commanding as the Father. He arrived muscularly voiced with a swagger in delivery, comically revealing that Humperdinck’s librettist and sister, Adelheid Wette, surely never wrote “Stone the crows. It’s Vegemite” into the libretto. With his towering oaky bass, Clayton was especially primed as he gave a gripping account of the witches on their broomsticks in the forest, cutting through the orchestra with a fearful blade of sound.

As the Mother, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell wielded her mothering skills with an iron fist and it reflected in her steely mezzo-soprano but, sadly, the bulkiness of the music felt lost. As the Witch, you expected a performance with panache when Brisbane-born Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu showed up in Act 3 blonde-wigged and gaudily shimmering in drag. It was a hoot. Nonetheless, the wig had difficulty staying on and Lehtipuu’s mostly wiry delivery left the Witch lacking convincing menace. As both the Dew Fairy and Sandman, Stacey Alleaume was a jewel-like sparkle, her soprano clear and penetrating from the left choir stalls as she looked down on the siblings. The combined National Boys Choir of Australia and Australian Girls Choir, singing from the rear as children liberated from a gingerbread life, were in angelic unison.

The orchestra maintained an excellent level of playing, the brass polished and balanced, the percussion distinctive and the woodwinds slithering through with flights of vitality while the reinforced strings were superbly meshed. It seemed odd and ill-conceived, however, presenting such a delicious delight without some form of semi-staged effort. As a fairy-tale most children will learn about, it was a shame no provision was made for their enjoyment.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A comic charmer in a modern world premiere of a baroque rarity arrives in lively flamboyant style from San Francisco’s Ars Minerva


In the latter part of the 17th century, Domenico Freschi no doubt sermonised his Roman Catholic beliefs as a priest in the northern Italian town of Vicenza. He was also maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of Vicenza, writing church music for the parishioners. The young man of the cloth had a side job too, as a composer of at least 16 known operas - though known to very few today. But in comes San Francisco’s Ars Minerva and Freschi gets some decidedly expert attention in a work that shimmies along in a delightful evening of music and storytelling in flamboyant style and deliciously sung form.

Nikola Printz as Ermelinda 
What is notable about Ermelinda, a 'dramma per musica' penned by Freschi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piccioli in 1680, is the economy of means by which the drama is drawn. The ternary ‘da capo’ form is absent and action is briskly carried forward with dominant use of the ‘cavatina’, or short operatic arias. Plump with melodic charm, it’s all over within two easy hours, including a 20-minute interval, under Artistic Director Céline Ricci’s lively flowing direction.

It’s a comically charged story where lovers have hurdles to jump, love can be supposedly mad and deceptions reveal truths. Ermelinda is shuffled off to the countryside by her father Aristeo who, much like Verdi’s Rigoletto, intends to shield her from urban life’s temptations. Of course, it doesn’t work. Ermelinda’s secret lover, Prince Ormondo, has followed her. He’s disguised as Clorindo, a peasant, and is fortuitously invited to stay with the nobleman Armidoro. But Armidoro’s sister, Ermelinda’s friend Rosaura, takes a shine to Clorindo and Armidoro has a thing for Ermelinda. Twists and turns ensue in this pantomime of sorts on its way to a happy ending as Freschi entertainingly demonstrates a realist’s approach in a not so absurd set of circumstances. 

Sara Couden as Ormindo
We’re in Phoenicia, an apparently fabricated setting having no relationship with the ancient east Mediterranean ancient civilisation. Nonetheless, with designer Entropy’s evocatively rendered settings, Phoenicia reveals its bucolic attributes in projections integrated cleverly with the storytelling under Thomas Bowersox’s seductive lighting and its exotic flair with touches of Arabia in Matthew Nash’s masterful costumes. 

Up close and intimate, the performance shows itself as a beautifully cast unit with voice types transposed convincingly. For it, strong identity is given to the two female parts and two female voices take on male parts likely written for castrati. Ermelinda’s father Aristeo, a rather insipid character adorned by some handsomely crafted music, is sung in countertenor. Justin Montigne acquits himself commendably in the role, measuring his capabilities sensibly with his bright and crisp tone while a nervous twitch indicates a degree of madness of one trying to cure the madness of one acting it to conceal their identity and feelings - and it’s not that confusing!

Justin Montigne as Aristeo, Kindra Scharich as Rosaura
and Sara Couden as Ormindo 
Nudging ahead as most impressive, gloriously sonorous contralto Sara Couden’s Ormondo is an endearing sort - a prince doing his utmost to act like a bumpkin - and she interprets his part with hugely textured vocal appeal, one as rich as plum pudding, with lashings of comic aplomb to go with it.

In the title role, mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz is polished and plush in voice as a spirited and quick-thinking Ermelinda. Printz’s elegance of line and emotive calibration radiates splendidly in Ermelinda’s rickety journey to secure her love and you can’t help but follow her expressive eyes as she does so. Rosaura is a vivacious firecracker of a girl to whom mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich makes a delightful and ostentatious floral concoction in voice and costume and, portraying a head-held-high aristocratic Armidoro as the third mezzo-soprano plying her trade, Deborah Rosengaus’ vocal radiance and refined wafer-like vibrato completes an uplifting evening of singing. 

Positioned in clear view to the side and humorously involved in the running, Grammy-nominated harpsichordist Jory Vinikour conducted five musicians from the keyboard giving balance and lilt to the score. Together with Gretchen Claassen on cello and Adam Cockerham on theorbo, the most consistent and emotive music emanated. A small quibble but a little more warmth from the smaller strings would have added increased fluidity.

Fancy, though, sitting down to experience an opera that hasn’t been staged since its premiere season almost 340 years ago. In this modern world premiere as part of Ars Minerva’s fifth annual production of such rarities, another piece of history that builds the story of opera has left the museum and made its mark in present times.


Ermelinda
Ars Minerva
B.Way Theatre, 3153 17th Street San Francisco
Until 24th November 2019


Production Photos: Teresa Tam

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Graeme Murphy's rhythmically alive Turandot returns to Melbourne with impressive musical quality

https://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/turandot-full-of-drama-and-tragedy/news-story/d030e5b8a75c68310802f92078652e5a

Published online at Herald Sun 20th November and in print 21st November 2019

When Opera Australia’s near 30-year -old production of Turandot opened on Tuesday night, many might have thought director Graeme Murphy’s dark and dynamic work was seeing its last days. Word has it, however, that there aren’t any plans yet to replace it for the company’s new utilisation of high-definition LED screens.

Lise Lindstom as Turandot, Walter Fraccaro as Calaf 
In its latest revival under director Kim Walker, the opera’s exotic theatrical fantasy is boldly underlined. From the start, when a crowd of oppressed citizens create waves of movement across the stage, rhythmical continuity becomes key to its success. Murphy’s choreographic skills are put to effective use even though patches can feel dated.

Ribbons of blood, waving banners, threatening swords and towering figures of rule set the scene in ancient Peking. The plot revolves around solving three riddles that would give a prince the right to marry an ice-hearted princess. Almost entirely, Puccini’s music creates the drama in what is a rather emotionally meagre story. For it, Christian Badea’s bold, tension-building approach to the score was a winner, as was Orchestra Victoria’s excellence.

Walter Fraccaro as Calàf, Christopher Hillier as Ping,
John Longmuir as Pong and Virgilio Marino as Pang
The singing was impressive too. As Turandot, when soprano Lise Lindstrom proclaimed “No man will ever own me!”, she brought out the full force of long- harboured anguish and seemingly sang for all women. In a reminder of her searing 2016 OA Ring’s Brünnhilde, Lindstrom’s vocal power burned long and intensely with no shortage of nuance and fluidity to go with it in this demanding role. An impassioned heart and voice accompanied tenor Walter Fraccaro’s renegade Calaf. Not every phrase was sealed with the chiaroscuro beauty he portrayed but Act 3’s renowned opening Nessun dorma! certainly sealed his audience’s approval.

In a tragic consequence of circumstances, soprano Karah Son was a standout as a poignantly sung Liù, the slave girl who sacrifices her life for Calaf. The choruses sang with thrilling purpose and Christopher Hillier, Virgilio Marino and John Longmuir nailed their parts splendidly in voice and manoeuvres as a highly experienced trio of imperial ministers. Given that Turandot doesn’t sing a note until the middle of Act 2, they just about steal the show.


Turandot 
Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until December 6

4-stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Hansel and Gretel’s purposeful storytelling and magical transition releases its charm at San Francisco Opera


In a family-friendly mix of good and evil and a delightful touch of hocus pocus, Engelbert Humperdinck’s most familiar opera, Hansel and Gretel, opened in a new production for San Francisco Opera on Friday night. Co-produced with London’s Royal Opera and both directed and designed by Antony McDjonald, the work pours out a good measure of more relaxed opera entertainment as the holiday season approaches.

Sasha Cooke as Hansel and Heidi Stober as Gretel 
That’s not to say that Humperdinck approached this Grimm brothers’ fairytale lightly. There’s so much glorious space to bask in with Humperdinck’s tapestry of meandering and effervescent melodies, musical landscapes and darker interjections to match the intensity of the heavyweight master of Bayreuth, Richard Wagner. And German librettist Adelheid Wette’s translated and sung English text for this two-hour, three-act 1893 opera is a rhyming cracker. 

McDonald has taken the more traditional and folkloric conceptual path and added characters of requisite largesse and vitality to its picture. A cuckoo clock that winds time from good times to poor above a proscenium-filled framed alpine setting sets the story in motion. It’s a cosy start that leads into the reality of Hansel and Gretel’s shirked at chore-ridden day. That the magic is kept at bay until Act 2’s evocative forest scene, one in which Hansel and Gretel’s dream becomes a wonderfully woven story of fairytale characters, is understandable. If not for Lucy Burge’s amusingly choreographed routines in Act 1 the kids of the audience might have demanded more. 

Michaela Martens as Mother and Alfred Walker as Father 
But then madness is mixed with magic in Act 3 when the witch’s house in the forest appears in a reference to Hitchcock’s  creepy Psycho mansion - a cake, in fact, with a giant knife sliced through the top. By this time, you can see how McDonald has purposefully transitioned the storytelling. After a fabulously sticky chocolatey end for the witch, it comes to land gently on the released children, angelically sung, in a thankfully not too bombastic god-guiding end of prayer’s value.

On opening night, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was a clear standout, rich and resonant of voice as the more pragmatic Hansel and full of adorable cheekiness to go with it. Soprano Heidi Stober added radiance as the sensible and dreamy Gretel, producing the magnificent fullness of a soaring top but bogged down at times by fuzzy diction and phrasing that dissipated in the lower parts of the voice. Importantly, the operatic pair appear in their element as nimble young siblings who are more or less struggling with but learning to balance responsibility with easy-come fun and adventure.

Dream pantomime tableau from Hansel and Gretel
As the parents trying to balance their own issues, dark mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens and earthy baritone Alfred Walker were a powerful blend of contrast and connection with Martens giving tenor Robert Brubaker’s raggedly sung psychotic witch a run for his money in conjuring up menace. Ashley Dixon was invitingly warm as the Sandman and Natalie Image sprinkled her charms as the Dew Fairy.

Overall, however, some attention seemed needed from the cast in projecting more consistently and smoothly. And, despite the gorgeously pronounced patches of expansive music under the baton of Christopher Franklin, the music occasionally ran its own show. With a three-week performance run to come, there’s wriggle room for tweaking such details. Hansel and Gretel is one of the great operatic joys of opera and once seen and heard, as little nippers sing out for, it’s hard not to imagine its story told in any other way.


Hansel and Gretel 
San Francisco Opera 
War Memorial Opera House
Until 7th December 2019



Production Photos: Cory Weaver