We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, June 25, 2018


Ísis Cunha, Sarah Kim, Javiera Saavedra, Carly Cummings, Abdiel Vazquez, Annmarie Errico, Lisa Nava, Jin Yu, and Erika Straus

A friend we invited to attend Engelbert Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel expressed disinterest in "a children's opera". We couldn't help wondering whether that misconception has kept this marvelous opera from being on the "Top Ten" list of operas. Would we call Cenerentola or Cendrillon "children's operas" because they too are based on fairy tales?

Thankfully, that designation has never dissuaded us, although we find the overblown production at the Met rather dispiriting. This is indeed an intimate family story and rather resonant at this time since children are being separated from their parents at our Mexican border. We couldn't help thinking of that whilst watching Manhattan Opera Studio's excellent intimate production last night at the National Opera Center. 

Fairy tales evolved over centuries, according to psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, and serve to help children deal with psychological issues.  Although the situation in Humperdinck's opera is not as dire as in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale (in which the parents abandon the children in the forest due to a famine), it still offers reassurance to children in that it reinforces sibling cooperation, stresses childhood resourcefulness, and offers the concept of helpful guardian angels. 

This softening of the story was likely due to the fact that the libretto was written by the composer's sister for her own children. Just like Disney, she did not trust the terrifying nature of the original.

From the standpoint of an adult opera lover, our enchantment rests on the melodies lavished by Humperdinck on his sister's libretto. Many of them are based upon German folk songs but the orchestration shows the influence of Richard Wagner. The 1893 premiere was conducted by none other than Richard Strauss. Gustav Mahler conducted it as well.

Last night's production, part of Manhattan Opera Studio's Summer Festival, employed Kathleen Kelly's outstanding reduction of the score for chamber orchestra, comprising a string quartet augmented by flute, clarinet, and horn,with Jestin Pieper at the piano. From this group of splendid musicians, Maestro Abdiel Vazquez pulled a winning performance.

All of the singers were superb. Soprano Carly Cummings made a winning Gretel in pigtails whilst mezzo-soprano Annmarie Errico was convincingly boyish as Hänsel. Like siblings everywhere they had their moments of fun and moments of rivalry. We enjoyed the scene in which they dance together but really enjoyed their duets in which their two voices blended beautifully.

Their very angry mother was sung by Javiera Saavedra and their bibulous father was performed by Jin Yu. After the children are sent to the forest to forage berries, Father returns home drunk but Mother's rage is softened when she sees the abundance of food he has brought, thanks to selling all of his brooms. There's a lot of insight into male/female dynamics there.

The forest scene was lovely. Patricia Billings' clarinet gave us believable cuckoo sounds. A chorus in the rear of the hall echoed Hansel's cries. A charming Sandman (Erika Straus) helps the children find peace in sleep. The physical presence of the 14 angels was created by the audience's imagination. The children are awakened by a rather idiosyncratic and colorful Dew Fairy (Ísis Cunha) sporting a yellow slicker and matching umbrella!

Sarah Kim made a wonderful witch, and the upward stares of the children helped us to see her fly (offstage, of course). She put the children in a trance by means of a spiral design on a twirling umbrella.  She cast a spell with her magic wand, utilizing it to control their movements. We were a bit puzzled however by her flamenco dance!

Stage Director Lisa Nava substituted imagination for money, leaving the audience to do some mental work, a good thing in our book. There was nothing onstage except some brooms and a couple of footstools which were used for important arias.  The witch's death in the oven was suggested by a floodlight and crinkled red cellophane. Elizabeth Harraman's horn announced her demise.  The chorus in the rear of the theater sang the parts of the children freed from her spell.

Manhattan Opera Studio presented this opera two years ago and we enjoyed it enough to catch it again. We had some quibbles about the directing and are happy to relate that Ms. Nava's direction is greatly improved. The characters related to one another and the family reunion at the end brought cheer to our heart as we imagined the reunions that will hopefully recur among our neighbors from South of the Border.

Our other quibble from 2016 was the titles of rhymed couplets which did not reflect a true German translation. This time, there were no titles but the German was quite clear and whatever was missed was made clear by the fine acting and direction.

Under the Artistic Direction of Carlos Federico Tagle and the Music Direction of Benoit Renard, Manhattan Opera Studio is a fine addition to the New York opera scene. There will be another chance to see this production Tuesday night at 8:00 at the National Opera Center.  Although the cast will be different, we are sure that the quality will be as high.

Thursday and Sunday will bring productions of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte and we can scarcely wait. Keith Chambers will be conducting.

(c) meche kroop

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