Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Entertaining hocus pocus takes the spotlight in a dreamy Hansel and Gretel at LA Opera

Director and designer Doug Fitch’s original 2006 production of 19th century composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel for LA Opera is back with all its entertaining hocus pocus. Packed with enchanting visual effects, charming google-eyed critters and blessed with a fabulous cast, it’s both opera for adults and a fairytale come-to-life for kids. And for just over a couple of hours, parents can leave the parenting to the moral training that’s found in this, one of the many didactic tales recorded by the brothers Grimm. Kids won’t have trouble staying up late. And when bedtime comes, dreams may very well be fired by the spectacle. 

Liv Redpath as Gretel and Sasha Cooke as Hansel
Siblings Hansel and Gretel, two country kids of struggling parents, are more or less learning to balance responsibility with fun and adventure. Fitch similarly appears to be doing the same with Humperdinck’s lushly orchestrated score and Richard Spark’s updated rhyming English libretto. Utilising the irresistible melodic beauty that runs through the music, Fitch enlivens his characters with magnified personality and adds magical touches in a way that keeps the stage busy and kids alert and happy.

During a perfectly settling overture, the flat painted ‘stage curtain’ depicting Hansel and Gretel’s cottage near the woods sets the scene and works its tricks. Smoke billows from the chimney, the stream begins to flow, Mother opens the door to sweep out the leaves and a flying broom darts across the picture. But then, it breaks apart and the third dimension is marvellously created when a storybook pop-up-like interior of the cottage rolls in.

If Hansel and Gretel don’t endear instantly, they’re sure to soon after as they sing their zippy song of the rice-cream dance while the furniture comes alive around them. As Hansel, rich and robust-voiced mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke impressed to no end in her LA Opera debut on opening night. Cooke outlines her music with just the right amount of oomph and resonance to fill the voluminous theatre and her excitable boyishness both looks and sounds more than convincing. 

Susan Graham as the Witch and Sasha Cooke as Hansel
Liv Redpath’s gorgeously sweetened soprano is a perfect match for her spirited, pretty Gretel. Redpath’s biggest vocal asset is a soaring upper range highlighted with polished crystal notes and she deploys them as if in her element. The two blend together adorably with lots of physical comradeship and duets that touch the heart. One of the more famous folk music-inspired tunes, Act 2’s "Evening Prayer",  is a special one that showcases the pair’s gift to capture a child’s innocence and hope most tenderly and affectingly.

The production’s big feature is its puppets but neither a song nor a mutter comes from these various furry, beaked, crawling, bobbling and ogling creatures who dreamily illuminate the woods. They don’t turn out to be particularly threatening but parade about more like friends of the Sesame Street clan.

Ripe-voiced mezzo-soprano Susan Graham’s wildly eccentric cigarette-smoking Witch - a kewpie doll-like wreck decked out in yellow tights, pink frills and waving her spoon wand - turned out to be more entertaining than wicked. Graham is clearly having fun with her own adventure, wielding her vocals in often comic declamations, hamming it up and going for a flying leap across the heights (she almost gets away with making believe it’s really her).

Craig Colclough as Father and Melody Moore as Mother
Bass-baritone Craig Colclough’s Father arrives home from a successful day of broom-selling in brilliantly large and firm voice, a harmless sort of chap with beer at the fore of his mind and a tone to warm the cockles. It almost seems that rich and potent soprano Melody Moore’s Mother is dealt the most fearsome treatment, first singing off-set as her face, in oversized projection, gives a scolding look, then entering the cottage in anger since the chores haven’t been done. 

There’s great affection, and a little cheekiness with it, between the parents. When they find their children, their joy is touching - only after the Witch’s house breaks up in a tornado-like spiral and the cute chorus of freed gingerbread sweet-voiced children do a little swaying dance. Sopranos Taylor Raven and Sarah Vautour bring mellifluousness and sparkle to songs of sleep and waking up as the Sandman and the Dew Fairy.

Driving it all forward at a moderate pace and in grand style, conductor James Conlon brought rich luminosity to the score. Great beauty was on show in exposed orchestral passages, notably in the extended Wagnerian intensity of the orchestral ending to Act 2's dream sequence following the “Evening Prayer”. The pit musicians were marvellous. 

In the pre-performance talk, Conlon mentioned he first encountered the opera as a 12 year-old boy and that for LA Opera he was conducting it for the first time. Indeed, Conlon made a strong success of it. And who knows, somewhere amongst a new generation of young ones beguiled by the experience, there are little individuals who one day will be actively involved in the art of opera too. 

Hansel and Gretel 
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 15th December, 2018

Production Photos: Karen Almond

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