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Hansel und Gretel: A Folk Tale Spun Into Operatic Gold at Opera in the Heights

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When Opera in the Heights announced it would perform Englebert Humperdinck's gargantuan fairy tale - gargantuan in size of its orchestra - I immediately thought, what a boneheaded mistake, this'll never work. This late Romantic behemoth (1893), progeny of Wagner and stepchild of soon-to-be Richard Strauss, requires orchestral forces that intimate Lambert Hall doesn't possibly have space for, nor can maestro Enrique Carreon-Robledo's small-scale ensemble do justice to the shimmering textures and tone painting that Humperdinck's most famous score calls for. This is epic musical theater; little Opera in the Heights can never pull this off.

Look who's the bonehead! Perfect for the kids and immensely satisfying for any grownup operaphile, Hansel und Gretel is a stunner, perhaps OH's most perfect realization.

In a splendid orchestral reduction by Derek Clark, head of the music staff at Scottish Opera, Humperdinck's grand work only gains in clarity by this talented abridgment, losing none of its sparkle and mysterious youthfulness. The score sounds lush and ever-fresh, awhirl with witty counterpoint and intriguing instrumental details which emphasize its soaring singing line and folklore-like melodies. Listen for the resounding trumpets, the effervescent harp, the deep swoon of the strings. The opera is ripe and certainly juicy. If Wagner would have possessed personal charm, this work might have been his.

Although the plot's much too simple for the titan of Bayreuth, Humperdinck dances right through it, much like his characters. Maestro Carreon-Robledo dances, too, and his superb orchestra follows like Ginger Rogers.

To stave off hunger, siblings Hansel and Gretel (mezzo Megan Berti and soprano Allison Pohl) goof off instead of doing their chores. Mom (soprano Cassandra Black) loses her patience and sends them to pick berries in the forest. When Dad (Brian Shircliffe) returns from a successful day at the market selling brooms, bringing a needed basket of food with him, he's horrified to learn that the children are in the woods. That's where the evil witch lives, he cries! Dad and Mom rush into the forest to find them. Lost and frightened, the children fall asleep through the intervention of the Sandman (soprano Amanda Kingston) . In the morning, awakened by the Dew Fairy (Kingston), they discover a tempting house made of gingerbread. As they nibble at it, they rouse the wicked witch (mezzo Claudia Chapa). I think you know the rest.

Following the Brothers Grimm classic, librettist Adelheid Wette, the composer's sister, wrote the play for her young relatives to perform as a puppet show. She asked her prize-winning musical brother to supply incidental tunes, and his four songs were such a hit that he was prodded to turn the whole affair into an opera. In Wette's version, Mom is overworked and careless in her punishment, not the grim ogre in the original tale (a doppelganger of the witch), and somewhere along the way a Sandman, Dew Fairy, and chorus of gingerbread children enlarged the cast.

In a lovely touch, when the witch is dispatched, the gingerbread cookies transform back into their real selves. The tyke chorus comes from HITS Theatre, and they are delectable.

This is all pretty simple stuff, but Humperdinck spins folksy straw into operatic gold. The work is awash in an almost Italianate lyricism, ironic since this opera was hailed as the most Germanic of all works since Wagner. You can hear that, for certain, but there's a sunny disposition in the music, an almost heady atmosphere of mist and moonlight, forest murmurs, bird calls, good times, and simple faith. The duets between Hansel and Gretel (mezzo and soprano) are as musically sophisticated and sublimely blended as what Strauss would later pen for Der Rosenkavalier. Herr Strauss conducted Hansel's world premiere and couldn't stop praising it for its freshness and originality. (Humperdinck's distinct musical voice had more of an effect on the great Strauss than he realized or ever acknowledged.)

OH has found a director of real quality in Mary Birnbaum, whose eye for the telling gesture, the perfect comic effect, or visual snap brings the fairy tale into our laps. Hansel falls asleep in the aisle; the witch's claw-like hands appear from behind the house before she emerges; during the "Evening Prayer," Mom and Dad, as if in the children's dream, spread out a spangly black cloth, like a starry night, and cloak their children under it; as Mom leaves, she quietly gestures to the heavens, and twinkly stars descend like night lights to watch over her sleeping son and daughter. Humperdinck supplies the softest of lullabies for punctuation.

With its moveable trees, rustic house, and simple stage effects, the production, designed by Robert Rolden and Joshua Slisz, has the feel of a picturebook come to life. Jim Elliot's colorful, subtle lighting is particularly effective, as is Dena Scheh's Bavarian-inspired look of lederhosen and dirndls.

The future of opera is in mighty secure hands when the young cast is this assured. Full of charm and exceptional technique, these fine pros sail through Humperdinck's Wagnerian tessitura as if laughing.

Opera in the Heights' production has it all: exceptionally vivid singing; a startlingly effective staging that's smart and witty; and an outstanding orchestral performance. Everything works.

Although Humperdinck had only modest success with his next opera, Königskinder (The King's Children), whose world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera boasted superstar Geraldine Farrar leading a flock of geese (1910), he never had another international blockbuster. Verismo was on the rise, and Wagner idolatry was waning. A lauded teacher of composition (Kurt Weill was one of his pupils), Humperdinck remains a one-opera guy. But he hit the heights with Hansel und Gretel. So does Opera in the Heights.

Hansel und Gretel continues with performances on November 16, 20, 22. The Emerald cast (with Hilary Ginther, Katie Dixon, and Jenni Bank) performs November 15, 21, 23 at Opera in the Heights, Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $13-$63.

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