While it rained buckets outdoors, there was plenty of action inside McCaw Hall on Saturday for the opening night of Seattle Opera’s fairy-tale-turned-consumer-critique “Hansel and Gretel.”
Saturday’s much-vaunted storm may have proved a bit of a dud — but there was plenty of action inside McCaw Hall for the opening night of Seattle Opera’s spirited and feisty “Hansel and Gretel.” This production, originally created by the director Laurent Pelly for the celebrated Glyndebourne Opera, has successfully toured in England, France and Spain; Seattle marks its U.S. debut. It’s not hard to see why the show has achieved international popularity.
The production’s focus is grimmer than some, though it’s still perfectly appropriate for children: Hansel and Gretel are living with their parents in an ingenious cardboard box, and when they’re sent out into the forest to gather food, they encounter a landscape of dead trees strewn with castoff trash. The character of the witch rides a fine line between hilarity and genuine menace.
Designed by Barbara de Limburg, the clever mobile set has a witch’s cottage that’s really a huge candy store, with a central oven just right for immolating its owner. At the end of Act II, as Hansel and Gretel dream of food, airborne images depicting those dreams (huge hamburgers, cakes, molten chocolate, French fries, etc.) descended over the stage, in perfect time with the score, and to the delighted applause of the audience. There must have been a run on the refreshment counters at intermission.
‘Hansel and Gretel’
by Engelbert Humperdinck, with Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducting. Through Oct. 30, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets from $25 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
A marvelously witty shadow-play film clip between acts introduces the Witch in silhouette as she vainly kick-starts a series of misbehaving brooms, finally picking out her ideal vehicle and zooming all over the screen.
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What pulls all these elements together, under the guidance of revival directors James Bonath and Christian Räth, is the talent and energy of the two casts. Saturday’s opening night show featured Sasha Cooke as Hansel and Ashley Emerson as Gretel; both of them sang superbly, and acted with skill and panache. They made great siblings: squabbling and roughhousing a bit, but also looking out for each other.
Cooke has a big, supple sound; Emerson’s lighter and beautifully produced soprano was an ideal counterpart to Cooke’s boyish portrayal. Their acting was realistic and detailed, constantly in motion — just as real kids are.
Sunday’s nimble cast built on similar strengths. Anya Matanovic was a vocally assured and charming Gretel; Sarah Larsen was a convincing and beautifully sung Hansel.
As the parents, Marcy Stonikas and Mark Walters are exceptionally good, able to present conflicting emotions while still caring about their children’s welfare. Both have first-rate voices that illuminate their characters.
Amanda Opuszynski was a charming Sandman/Dew Fairy, her crystalline soprano accompanied by a most fetching characterization.
(It gives opera lovers pause to reflect that Seattle Opera’s now-suspended Young Artists program helped discover and shape the careers of Cooke, Stonikas, Opuszynski, Larsen and Matanovic. Time to revive that program!)
John Easterlin’s Witch was attired in a wonderfully hideous bright-pink suit, soon opened to display even more startling underpinnings. He employed a wide repertoire of cackles and shrieks, along with some fine singing, in creating a memorable character. On Sunday, Peter Marsh (similarly attired) took over the broomstick with equally impressive results, putting his own spin on witchy menace and vocal alacrity.
The orchestra, led by Sebastian Lang-Lessing, was really the star of the production, performing Humperdinck’s opulent neo-Wagnerian score with lyricism and accuracy. Lang-Lessing never overwhelmed the cast or let the pace flag.
The final scene, in which the Witch’s previous captives (plumped up by all that candy and junk food) are released from her spell, was charmingly done. The excellent children’s chorus, prepared by chorusmaster Beth Kirchhoff, is surprisingly affecting as they emerge in a stupor from the Witch’s candied domain — giving opera fans a truly heartwarming finale. Cheers went up in the house as the sign was hoisted onto the stage, declaring the witch’s house “Für Immer Geschlossen” — “Closed Forever.”