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HGO conjures up a frightfully good Hansel and Gretel

Houston Grand Opera's new production of Hansel and Gretel is indeed a testimony to the genius of famed children's-book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

The fanciful sets Sendak has designed for this show truly capture the charm of Engelbert Humperdinck's fairy-tale opera, which is based on the familiar story by the Brothers Grimm. From a high-flying witch on a broomstick, soaring above the stage, to an intriguing gingerbread house nestled in a menacing forest, Sendak's sets are a sight to behold.

But the sets aren't the only reason to see Hansel and Gretel. HGO has assembled a fine cast for this production. At Friday night's premiere, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek and soprano Jane Giering-De Haan were delightful as, respectively, Hansel and Gretel. Although they may have sung a little too softly at the opera's outset, they finished strongly. Their second-act rendition of "Abends will ich schlafen gehn," in which Hansel and Gretel say their prayers before falling asleep in the forest, was deeply moving.

Giering-De Haan also offered a spirited interpretation of the first-act number "BrYderchen, komm tanz mit mir," in which Gretel invites Hansel to dance with her, and a charming treatment of the second-act folksong "Ein Mannlein steht im Walde."

In the adult roles, soprano Mary Lloyd-Davies and baritone James Maddalena were outstanding. Lloyd-Davies played the dual role of Gertrude, Hansel and Gretel's slightly tipsy mother, and the menacing witch, while Maddalena was Peter, the children's dissolute father. Both Lloyd-Davies and Maddalena sang powerfully. Moreover, they added a depth to their characters that is generally not found in other stagings of this opera.

Sopranos Tiffany Jackson and Jennifer Aylmer were memorable in the comparatively minor roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. Jackson sang a stunning rendition of the second-act lullaby "Der kleine Taumann heiss' ich" that was utterly delightful.

The children's chorus, which plays an important role in this opera, was in top form Friday night, singing and acting with enthusiasm, most notably during Hansel and Gretel's climactic final scene.

The choreography was excellent. The inclusion of dance sequences during several of the orchestral interludes was a nice touch and helped to sustain the action, as well as keep up the audience's interest.

Unlike in some productions of Hansel and Gretel (including past ones by HGO), a full orchestra is used. This enables listeners to understand the true depth of Humperdinck's music, especially when, as was the case with conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing and the HGO Orchestra, the interpretation offered is so delightful.

When Humperdinck and his librettist, Adelheid Wette, fashioned this opera a little more than 100 years ago, they softened several of the aspects of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale. The children's nasty stepmother in the Grimm Brothers' story is, in Humperdinck's opera, transformed into their mother. And while she and her husband have their faults, they still love their children and go out looking for them when they get lost in the woods. Moreover, the forest here is not a particularly frightening place, even with a witch lurking in the background.

Still, under the influence of Sendak and the direction of his collaborator, the Juilliard School's Frank Corsaro, this production attempts to reintroduce some of the original story's more frightening elements and portray Hansel and Gretel's parents in a less favorable light. In this endeavor it's only partially successful. Sure, the mother threatens to use a broom on her children for not doing their chores, and sure, she and her husband like to drink a little too much. However, Hansel and Gretel's family comes across as being more dysfunctional than abusive.

The production is more successful in portraying the forest as a forbidding place. Thunder and lightening accentuate the danger lurking there. However, when the children finally encounter the witch, she's wearing a Technicolor outfit and a foppish hat. She looks more like Mother Goose than someone who would be caught flying around on a broomstick.

But that's okay. Humperdinck obviously didn't intend his opera to be a commentary on child abuse or neglect. To transform it into such would probably require a reworking of both the text and the music -- and then it wouldn't be the same opera. The Technicolor witch, while not particularly scary, is nonetheless one of the production's many delights. Humperdinck himself probably would have approved of her.

Over the past two decades, HGO has staged Hansel and Gretel several times. This is by far its best production of the work. It's captivating from start to finish. Fans of Humperdinck's opera definitely shouldn't miss this production. For that matter, those few who aren't fond of this opera shouldn't miss it either.

Hansel and Gretel plays through November 15 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 546-0200.

 
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