Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Dido and Aeneas: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

This performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was, characteristically for this ensemble, alert to musical details, vividly etched and imaginatively conceived.

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Hans Werner Henze : The Raft of the Medusa, Amsterdam

This is a landmark production of Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) conducted by Ingo Metzmacher in Amsterdam earlier this month, with Dale Duesing (Charon), Bo Skovhus and Lenneke Ruiten, with Cappella Amsterdam, the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderen Jeugdkoor, and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, in a powerfully perceptive staging by Romeo Castellucci.

Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion, BWV 245

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here.

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Academy of Ancient Music: St John Passion at the Barbican Hall

‘In order to preserve the good order in the Churches, so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.’

Fiona Shaw's The Marriage of Figaro returns to the London Coliseum

The white walls of designer Peter McKintosh’s Ikea-maze are still spinning, the ox-skulls are still louring, and the servants are still eavesdropping, as Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production of The Marriage of Figaro returns to English National Opera for its second revival. Or, perhaps one should say that the servants are still sleeping - slumped in corridors, snoozing in chairs, snuggled under work-tables - for at times this did seem a rather soporific Figaro under Martyn Brabbins’ baton.

Lenten Choral Music from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.)

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s innovative, new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust succeeds on multiple levels of musical and dramatic representation. The title role is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, his companion in adventure Méphistophélès is performed by Christian Van Horn.

Netrebko rules at the ROH in revival of Phyllida Lloyd's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play of the night: of dark interiors and shadowy forests. ‘Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,’ says Macbeth, welcoming the darkness which, whether literal or figurative, is thrillingly and threateningly palpable.

San Diego’s Ravishing Florencia

Daniel Catán’s widely celebrated opera, Florencia en el Amazonas received a top tier production at the wholly rejuvenated San Diego Opera company.

Samantha Hankey wins Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Four singers were awarded prizes at the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup, which reached its closing stage at Glyndebourne on 24th March. The Glyndebourne Opera Cup focuses on a different single composer or strand of the repertoire each time it is held. In 2018 the featured composer was Mozart and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanied the ten finalists.

Handel's first 'Israelite oratorio': Esther at the London Handel Festival

It’s sometimes suggested that it was the simultaneous decline of the popularity of Italian opera seria among Georgian audiences and, in consequence, of the fortunes of Handel’s Royal Academy King’s Theatre, that led the composer to turn his hand to oratorio in English, the genre which would endear him to the hearts of the nation.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):