In a cynical age, Sarasota Opera’s “Hansel und Gretel” works its traditional magic

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Angela Mortellaro as Gretel and Heather Johnson as Hansel. Photo: Rod Millington.

Angela Mortellaro as Gretel and Heather Johnson as Hansel. Photo: Rod Millington.

Even with—or perhaps because of— its radiant music, childish innocence, and spiritual theme, Hansel und Gretel has fallen on hard times.

Oh, Engelbert Humperdinck’s children’s opera still receives plenty of performances to be sure, but when larger companies tackle it today, it’s usually in the form of a cynical deconstruction, exaggerating the darker elements in predictable postmodern fashion. Most emblematic of the contemporary approach is the well-traveled, hysterically overpraised Richard Jones-John MacFarlane staging, which transforms Humperdinck’s opera into a camp, grotesquely Freudian nightmare.

Traditional productions are the rule at Sarasota Opera and, while that may make for occasionally stodgy results in some works, in others it proves refreshingly retro, as with the current revival of Hansel und Gretel.

The company has more experience with Humperdinck than most, having presented the German composer’s Königskinder in 1997. There were children aplenty at Sunday’s matinee, and even with one principal withdrawing due to illness, the practical magic of Sarasota Opera’s charming production made for an enjoyable afternoon.

While the twee English translation can set teeth agrind (“Come, little mousey, come into my house-y”), the musical values were on a consistently high level, and David P. Gordon’s evocative storybook sets and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s colorful costumes added to the pleasures (the Phineas Fogg getups for the Sandman and Dew Fairy notwithstanding).

Angela Mortellaro was an exceptionally convincing Gretel, the petite soprano credible as a playful young girl, singing with a rich, youthful soprano voice and strongly conveying Gretel’s terror at being lost in the woods.

Stephanie Lauricella gracefully stepped into the role of Hansel Sunday for an ailing Heather Johnson, displaying a fine high mezzo, and bringing apt rambunctious androgeny to the role.

Stella Zambalis was a worthy Witch singing solidly and providing individual comic touches without going over the top. Hearty and big-voiced, Evan Brummel was a terrific Peter, completely inhabiting the role of the children’s loving but irresponsible father. Valerie Kopinski proved a complementary rich-voiced mate as Gertrud, their fretting mother. Director Jeffrey Marc Buchman moved the traffic efficiently.

The fulcrum of the performance was the glorious playing of the Sarasota Opera Orchestra under Anthony Barrese. The conductor has been impressive with colorful scores (Sarasota’s Lakme in 2005), and Barrese drew iridescent, richly textured playing in the orchestral set pieces as well as supporting the singers with great skill.

Hansel and Gretel runs through March 13.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “In a cynical age, Sarasota Opera’s “Hansel und Gretel” works its traditional magic”

  1. Posted Jul 06, 2010 at 8:45 am by Chris

    Thank You for the lavish “Hansel and Gretel”-production. You were absolutely right in doing it this way. I am from Germany and here each and every oper is transformed into something totally unrecognizable from the composer’s and author’s intentions. Horror!

    I wish, I would have seen your recent production of “Königskinder”. Is there any option, you might rerelease this production?

    And: Could you show more photos of your productions at the web?

    Kind regards from Cologne, whre Humperdinck was working as a Conductor :-),


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Mon Mar 8, 2010
at 8:05 pm
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