|Cast of Opera Theater of Montclair's Hansel and Gretel|
In 1890, Adelheid Wette, the sister of composer Engelbert Humperdinck, asked him to compose 4 songs for a puppet show for her nieces based on the Grimm Brothers fairytale, Hansel and Gretel. Later she wrote the libretto for an opera based on the fairytale. Over the next three years Humperdinck completed composition of the opera using his sister’s libretto. It premiered on December 23, 1893 and was an immediate success. It remains one of the most popular operas throughout the world and is often performed during the Christmas season. The opera is not just for children; its endless melody makes it enjoyable for adults as well.
Mia-Riker-Norrie, General Director of the Opera Theatre of Montclair, made a wise choice in selecting this delightful opera as its fifth full main stage production. Two performances took place this Saturday and Sunday and two more performances will take place next weekend. All performances begin at 4:00 to so that children can enjoy this opera along with their family. Many young children were in the audience Saturday with their parents, grand parents, or other friends and family.
Engelbert Humperdinck, a great admirer of the composer Richard Wagner, was invited by Wagner to work with him for two years. Humperdinck’s elaborate scores reflect Wagner’s influence, but Humperdinck found his own unique style. He was known for his tuneful music and brilliant orchestrations. There are at least a dozen familiar tunes in the opera.
The overture, conducted by Maestro Elizabeth Hastings, begins softly with the horns playing the “evening prayer” heard later in the opera. She quietly built up the crescendos as called for and brought out exciting and beautiful playing from the orchestra.
The opera opens with Hansel, (mezzo-soprano Madison Marie Mcintosh), and Gretel, (soprano Laura Kosar), singing a folk song, “Susie little Susie.” They are poor and hungry. Hansel is supposed to be making brooms and Gretel is knitting but they would much rather play. Madison and Laura were entirely convincing as young children; Madison with her shorts and Bavarian suspenders, and Laura with her dirndl. Madison’s Hansel is a typical young boy… playful, who avoids work and teases his sister by sticking out his tongue. Laura was also very playful although a bit more serious. Madison has a beautiful mezzo voice which, every time I hear her, seems to grow bigger and more beautiful. Laura’s lyric soprano is lovely and blooms on the high notes. Their voices were perfectly matched as they sang and danced the well known duet “Brother won’t you dance with me.”
Their mother returns home and is furious with them for shirking their chores. Soprano Luisa Fernanda Munster sang the role of the mother, Gertrude. She has a big attractive dramatic voice and uses it well.
Gertrude sends the children off to the woods to pick strawberries. The father Peter is heard offstage singing a happy song. He is delighted that he was able to sell many brooms at the fair. Peter was sung by bass-baritone Nathan Bahny. His big booming voice has a beautiful gentle quality and he was entirely convincing as the concerned father.
The Second act starts with another orchestral prelude which is known as “The witches ride.” Again, Maestro Hastings’ conducting was just right…bringing out the drama and excitement of the music.
Hansel and Gretel are lost in the woods which they find very scary. The Sandman, sung very sensitively by soprano Christine Rauschenbach-Nevill, sprinkles sand over the children to make them sleepy. Before falling asleep, Hansel and Gretel sing their evening prayer, again in complete harmony with each other, and then they fall asleep.
Fourteen angels gather to protect the sleeping children. The costume designer, Julia Sharp, created beautiful flowing white capes for the angels…4 of them were on either side of the choir loft and the other 14 were divided between the two aisles of the church With choreography by Conny Andres, they danced as they came down the aisles and onto the stage. This was a very lovely scene, staged by the director of the production, Stacey Canterbury. Maestro Hastings' sensitive conducting of this delicate music supported the dancing. The dancers were all young and lovely.
Act Three opens this time with a happy sounding prelude, although there are hints of the evil witch with the “Nibble nibble mousekin” theme. The Dew fairy, who comes to awaken the children, was gently sung by the lyric soprano Barbara Monk. Upon waking up, Hansel and Gretel come across the gingerbread house. Madison and Laura again displayed their ability to portray the children. Their astonishment upon finding the gingerbread house was well acted. Stacey Canterbury Climie, who directed this production of Hansel and Gretel, sings the role of the witch. She has a big warm voice and uses it well. I did feel that she was a bit nicer than I imagine a witch to be but it was an interesting interpretation.
Hansel and Gretel free the children who are no longer gingerbread people and the opera ends with a joyful children’s chorus.
When the opera ended it was met with great applause by both children and adults. Congratulations to Mia, the General Director of the Opera Theatre of Montclair, for bringing together such a great team of people to put on this beautiful production. And congratulations to David Gilliam the set and production designer. He designed three folding backdrops; the first a painted kitchen scene with pots, pans, and a stove; the second a forest scene, and the third the gingerbread house and gingerbread characters.
For those of you who were not at the performances this weekend, do come to see this delightful well performed opera next weekend and bring your friends, children and grandchildren. You’ll be in for a treat.
© Ellen Godfrey, Guest Reviewer
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.