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Simply Delicious!

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
12/16/2011 -  & December 21, 24, 26, 29*, 30, 2011, January 3, 7, 2012
Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel
Aleksandra Kurzak (Gretel), Kate Lindsey (Hansel), Robert Brubaker (Witch), Dwayne Croft (Peter), Michaela Martens (Gertrude), Jennifer Johnson-Cano (The Sandman), Ashley Emerson (The Dew Fairy)
Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, Anthony Piccolo (Director), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (Conductor)
Richard Jones (Production), John Macfarlane (Set and Costume Designer), Jennifer Tipton (Lighting Designer), Linda Dobell (Choreographer), Eric Einhorn (Stage Director)

A. Kurzak & R. Brubacker (© Marty Sohl)

For the holiday season, the Metropolitan Opera mounts a work in English geared for parents and their children, the Julie Taymor Magic Flute has been a great success in prior years.

This year’s treat is a production by Richard Jones of Hansel and Gretel first seen at the Met in 2007 and before that at the Welsh National Opera. The current production replaced a traditional Met staging that lasted more than 30 years. Based on a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which of course have a dark undercurrent of their own, this conception seems even darker, although I must say I noticed no obvious distress from the many children in the audience. Indeed, they seemed to be having a fantastic time!

Jones, who won an Olivier award for the WNO production, uses food as a central metaphor. The set and costume designer John Mcfarlane provided marvelously creepy stage pictures, particularly the show curtains concealing staging changes. The most striking of these was an enormous open mouth with a large cake resting on a menacing looking tongue. The three acts were presented with striking contrast, the first in a bare bones family kitchen; the third in an industrial kitchen (suited to the industrial scale baking of the witch) and the middle one, not in a forest but a dining room with dense leafy wallpaper, waiters with branches for heads, and a butler who is a fish. In come not the 12 angels of the fairy tale and most opera productions, but 12 larger than life chefs carrying covered serving dishes. The children are so hungry, that they dream of food and this marvelous scene is their dream. The chefs’ costumes and make up were fabulous. The butler was also quite a hit. Indeed, it was all extremely effective and greeted with audible delight by the children in the audience. Later, at the end of the third act, the audience cheered when the witch was pushed into the industrial sized oven and laughed with glee when she was later pulled out as a rather elongated pastry.

The English libretto was written by David Pountney, the new Artistic Director of the Welsh National Opera. While singing in English is generally family friendly, there were problems with diction and a consequent lack of intelligibility – mostly related to Aleksandra Kurzak’s Gretel. However, her singing and acting were first rate. She has a voice of purity and sweetness and she sang with the gentle lyricism of a young girl. The prayer sung with Kate Lindsey’s marvelous Hansel was truly the musical highpoint of the performance. And both singers really did transform themselves into children – Aleksandra Kurzak lovely and vulnerable and Kate Lindsey all arms and legs and awkwardness and impetuosity.

Robert Brubaker is a superlative singer and actor. He played the witch as an overweight and diabolically twisted Julia Child, and was totally committed to the role, performing with relish and demonic glee. It was an astonishing performance, especially perhaps for those of us who remember his star turn last season as Chairman Mao.

What a versatile singer/actor Brubaker is!. A man dressed as a woman is a staple of British pantomime (called panto) tradition. Brubaker looked as if he had a lot of fun with it, as did we all, thanks to him. Michaela Martens as Gertrude, also turned in some fine singing, but she seemed much more threatening and disturbing than she was maternal.

Dwayne Croft was – as always – superb We first hear him offstage – somehow manifesting his customary stage presence even though invisible! He sang with perfect diction, beautiful resonant sound, and such personality. He lavishes so much care and musicianship on every one of his roles – be they small or large(Read here). The Sandman was beautifully sung by Jennifer Johnson-Cano with a gorgeous voice coming out of a truly frightening face. And rounding out the cast was Ashley Emerson as the delicate Dew Fairy – with a lovely voice as well.

This run marked the Met debut of the new Music Director of the Glyndebourne Festival – Robin Ticciati, who is only 28. Under his direction, the orchestra revealed Humperdinck’s lush harmonies. They were sprightly or sinister as required, and provided a luxuriance so evocative of the forest albeit one not directly represented by the sets in this production. The majestic brass heard to great effect in the second act was quite reminiscent of Die Meistersinger. All in all this was a wonderful performance – visually stunning and musically first rate. Let’s hope at least some of those children will become friends and supporters of the Met in years to come.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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