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Hansel and Gretel (HGO)
05 Dec 2006

Houston “rescues” Hansel and Gretel

HOUSTON — “Hansel and Gretel” has taken a beating in recent seasons, as over-zealous directors — aping the excesses of Eurotrash Regieoper — have made Humperdink’s largely innocent retelling of the Grimms’ tale the victim of hyper-active imaginations.

Humperdinck’s siblings have been turned into depraved teen-agers, wayward members of a sorely dysfunctional family, sometimes headed by an alcoholic father and a shrew-like mother. And drag-queen witches on motorcycles have brought lip-smacking realism to hints of cannibalism in the story, thus outdoing the fairy-tale original in grotesque ghoulishness.

In a holiday production the Houston Grand Opera has taken a happily refreshing “less-is-more” approach to Humperdinck’s one great hit, enhancing the appeal of the work to both children and adults. To achieve this Anthony Freud — in his first season as HGO general director and CEO — paired the talent of puppeteer Basil Twist with the acumen of newly appointed head of the HGO music staff Kathleen Kelly, who reorchestrated this score for chamber ensemble.

For almost a decade Twist, a third-generation puppeteer, has focused his career on music. His 1998 underwater visualization of Berlioz’” Symphonie fantastique” won both an Obie Award and a Drama Desk nomination. Two years later he staged Stravinsky’s ballet “Petrushka” with puppets and then directed two operas written specifically for puppets: de Falla’s “Master Peter’s Puppet Show” and Respighi’s “Sleeping Beauty in the Woods.”

In Houston Twist, doubling as designer and director, has combined humans and puppets on stage simultaneously for the first time. For the production Twist engaged eight professional puppeteers who — invisible to the audience — work both above and below the stage. In addition, from Japan’s Bunraku theater he has added black-clad assistants who bring puppets on stage.

Most impressive, however, is the illusion that he has created in the size of the singers involved. As the opera opens Hansel and Gretel seem truly child-size as they move among mammoth pieces of furniture. And the parents, when they appear, enforce this impression. With enlarged heads and walking on stilts, they recall “tricks” often used to make Wagner’s “Rheingold” giants Fafner and Fasolt larger than life.

Twist has outdone even himself with a femme fatale Witch, a 12-foot swivel-hipped diva in flaming red directly from the grandest of operas. To execute Twist’s design for the figure, Houston’s Jm Jensen Company mounted baritone Liam Bonner on a vintage rolling camera pedestal that is moved around the stage with fluidity and speed by two men beneath the Witch’ skirts. A third is responsible for the figure’s body movements, while Bonner sweeps the air with long-fingered hands and arms that extend from his own.

Twist calls the Witch “an extended opera singer,” whom he finds “pretty cool.”Her physical stature, he notes, reflects her power. And while the Witch, sung by Bonner without affectation, might scare the daylights out of kids, for the audience she speaks more of fun than fear, an impression enforced by an ornately colorful house built of gingerbread from a batter obviously rich in Russian Easter eggs.

Other impressive “twists” of the staging include 14 diaphanous angels — puppets all — who dance an aerial ballet above the sleeping children after their “Prayer” and the addition to the cast of an entourage of gingerbread people recruited from HGO Children’s Chorus. Following the demise of the Witch they shed their costumes to be real boys and girls, now liberated from captivity. (Karen Reeves rehearsed the children.)

Twist shares the success of the production with Kelly, whose reduction of Humperdinck’s Wagnerian orchestra to an ensemble of a mere eight — string quartet, horn, flute, clarinet and piano — gives the opera a whole new lease on life.Kelly undertook this task — independent of the HGO — for the Berkshire Opera, where she premiered the new version last summer in several Massachuset communities with small venues. (One theater was without a pit, making itnecessary for the instrumentalists to share the stage with the singers.)

As a chamber opera “Hansel and Gretel” is a kinder and gentler work than the original as it is often encountered today. “The score is lush,” Kelly says, “but its bone structure is clear and clean.” And it is the strength of these qualities that bring to the HGO staging a feeling of rebirth and rediscovery that make “Hansel and Gretel” a masterpiece of classic restraint.

In this lean environment the German children’s songs that Humperdinck built into the score retain their authenticity, and the transparency of the reduced orchestration brings to the surface a charm often obscured by the forces of the original version.

“The music at the heart of any work is greater than the forces that create the sound,” Kelly comments. “Hansel and Gretel” is sung here in Cori Ellison’s delightfully unmannered and infinitely singable English translation of the libretto, which includes such lines as these sung by the Witch:

“I plan to set his heart aflutter
With Belgian waffles and cinnamon butter.”

The production, seen at the opening-night performance on December 1and slated for 10 further December performances in the Cullen Theater in Houston’s Wortham Center, is in its entirety a product of the HGO Studio, the company’s highly regarded training program for young artists, which Kelly serves as music director.

A delightfully boyish Fiona Murphy and a convincingly adolescent Rebecca Camm sang the title roles on opening night; they alternate with Maria Markina and Alicia Gianni in later performances. Jennifer Root and Ryan McKinny are the parents, while Russian-born Albina Shagimuratova, a first-year Studio artist, makes her HGO debut, doubling as Sandman and Dew Fairy.

Regarding her collaboration with Twist, Kelly points first to the number of Baroque operas written for puppets — again, small venues prompted the practice — and to the favor that transcriptions and arrangements enjoyed before the age of recorded sound. “And it’s ideal for younger singers — artists still in their 20s or early 30s,” she says. Kelly conducted the overwhelmingly charming and convincing staging.

It is perhaps surprising that Anthony Freud chose “‘Hansel and Gretel” rather than “Turandot” or “Meistersinger” for his first new production in Houston. “It’s been interesting for me to look at a favorite opera with new eyes,” says Freud, speaking of his choice of Twist for the staging. “Basil has never directed humans before, and the combination of puppets and real people has been a fresh challenge for him.” Freud points to plans for projects designed specifically for the 1100-seat Culllen, less than half the size of the Brown Theater, the 2200-seat venue for HGO major productions. “And the talent of our Studio makes such projects doubly appealing, for they are of benefit both to the training program and to the company as a whole,”Freud says.

This “Hansel and Gretel,” a co-production of the Houston Grand Opera and Atlanta Opera, rescues the opera from the over-the-top productions that have become a modern tradition. It gives the score a new lease on life.

Wes Blomster

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