Miami Beach Music Festival serves up a multimedia “Hansel and Gretel”

By Lawrence Budmen

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival presented Hansel and Gretel Friday night at the Faena Forum. Pictured are Leah Huber (Gretel) Annika Bell (the Witch) and Stella FitzGerald (Hansel). Photo: Dennis Oda/MBCMF

A magic forest replete with birds, animals, a waterfall and lake, a gingerbread house and a fiery furnace engulfed the stage, walls and ceiling of the Faena Forum in Miami Beach as  the Miami Beach Classical Music Festival’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel proved a feast for eyes and ears alike. 

The 3-D mapping projections and cinematographic designs by festival director Michael Rossi brought a new creative vision and spirit to the art form. Call it Star Wars meets operatic drama.

The charm and theatrical mastery of Humperdinck’s setting of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm belies the score’s melodic richness, chromaticism and structural symmetry. Why this operatic gem has never been presented by Florida Grand Opera remains a mystery. (It would certainly make a great holiday offering that could draw children and families beyond the normal opera audience.)

This path-breaking production was a high water mark for the summer opera festival. It was received with great enthusiasm by a large audience, aided by a singable English translation. The musical and dramatic elements were consistently well served. Conductor Aaron Breid’s taut pacing ensured that the momentum never flagged. He led the large ensemble in a clean and unified reading while keeping individual instrumental voices transparent.

This summer’s festival has been notable for a plethora of fine youthful mezzo voices and there were no less than three in this presentation. Stella FitzGerald was a thoroughly boyish Hansel with a light timbre, purity of intonation and a burnished middle register. One can easily hear this talented young singer’s future in Mozart and Strauss trouser roles.

As the children’s mother, Mairin A. Srygley’s anger was fierce but she projected remorse for her temper tantrum with palpable sincerity. Srygley’s sizable voice and clear diction turned her brief scene in the first act into a star turn. 

Annika Bell exuded frightening menace mixed with faux charm as the witch. Displaying a powerful high range, Bell avoided the temptation to exaggerate the role to caricature. When the two children pushed the witch into the oven’s projected fire, many in the audience applauded.

Leah Huber (who played one of the children in the festival’s superb 2021 production of Britten’s Albert Herring) brought an evenly balanced, agile soubrette soprano and playful demeanor to Gretel. Initially she was not always audible over the thick orchestration, but her top tones dazzled as she awoke to face the witch in the second act. Huber and FitzGerald’s voices blended exquisitely in the children’s prayer, sung movingly at a flowing tempo.

As the father, Rodney Sharp (last week’s Gianni Schicchi) entered through the audience and the orchestra pit, prancing about the stage. His deep bass baritone was equally effective in his initial robust folkish ditty and full-voiced description of the dread that awaits his children in the dark, foreboding forest and the evil witch flying on a broomstick. Combining strong vocalism and magnetic presence, Sharp is a natural scene stealer.

Doubling as the bearded Sandman and the Dew Fairy who awakens the children in the forest, Darby Barnett’s unforced lyric soprano captured the gentle lyricism of Humperdinck’s writing. The choruses of fairies and liberated children at the conclusion were beautifully articulated.

Robert B. Dundas’ staging gave equal weight to the protagonist’s joy and terror, seamlessly blending live action on and around the stage with Rossi’s innovative film fully setting the venue and aura of each scene. Paulina Lozano’s fairy tale colored costumes and Julia LaVault’s subtle lighting enhanced this one of a kind marriage of modern cinematic technology and vocal art.

There is one remaining performance of an operatic offering that should delight children and the young at heart.

The Miami Beach Classical Music Festival repeats Hansel and Gretel 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Faena Forum in Miami Beach.

Photo: Dennis Oda/MBCMF

Posted in Performances

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Sat Jul 22, 2023
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