Hansel and Gretel at Virginia Opera

Virginia Opera’s Hansel and Gretel is not your 19th century Grimm fairytale. There is no gingerbread house anywhere in this modernized production of the beloved German opera. It’s not the Black Forest anymore; it could be Kansas.

An abandoned carnival can be a very creepy place! With mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak as the Witch, mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain as Hansel, and soprano Julia Ebner as Gretel in Virginia Opera’s production of Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ Photo by David Polston.

Any misgivings I may have had about the new versions of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 19th century masterwork, interpreting gullible children as greedy ‘me-me-me’ types selfishly stuffing their faces; or casting witches as alter-ego uber-moms wanting the kids to grow up and act their age, were dispelled by the opening. A beat-up wood-grain Buick station wagon is riding across the plains through the dark of night, headlights on, mom and dad in the front, and Hansel and Gretel in the back. A red balloon escapes from the car and floats up and away.

Hansel (mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain) and Gretel (soprano Julia Ebner) complement each other well. Their voices have a similar lyrical quality and timbre, though Mushegain seems slightly more powerful and emphatic in places, and Ebner sustains an overall upbeat energy. When Hansel and Gretel duet, it is pleasing junge lieder.

Mezzo soprano Margaret Gawrysiak sings mom (Gertrude) and The Witch. She carries off both roles very well, managing to convey the exasperation/desperation of both a mother trying to provide nourishment for her family, and an evil witch impatient for a tasty meal.

In Virginia Opera’s promotional trailer, conductor Gerald Steichen says Hansel and Gretel need to look like children but sing like Brünnhilde. The challenge here, not found in many female opera roles, is that you can’t just stand there and belt out your aria. The first act especially requires almost acrobatic performances, displaying the energy of children playing and fighting and dancing with each other. When Mom comes home, she’s got to move and sing with the same gusto to keep up with the kids. It’s not easy. No Peter Pan flying wires for middle-aged actresses here. To their credit, the movement in this production is very well done. And such energy is needed to keep the audience themselves from succumbing to the Sandman, because quite frankly, the music is pastoral enough to lull you into the land of Nod.

Speaking of the Sandman, countertenor Jason Abrams, costumed in a sparkling red ringmaster’s jacket, is very interesting and distinctive. The high-pitched tenor lends a disquieting eeriness to the scene. Soprano Elizabeth Baldwin, the fifth of the debut singers in this Virginia Opera production, is also very good in her brief appearance as the Dew Fairy. (Note to self: Green lamé boots and purple look good together.)

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Baritone Eric Greene, a Juilliard alumnus from inner-city Baltimore, is the established veteran of the cast, and performs dad (Pete) with strength, adding both a foundation and uplifting presence in his scenes.

Our new millennium take on Hansel and Gretel is softer than Engelbert Humperdinck’s, or at least more subtle in its representations of Providence (prayers and angels) and Evil (cages and ovens). Actually, Humperdinck’s 1893 opera is much more family friendly than the original story, with its stepmother wanting to abandon the kids in the forest because the family lacks food for four, and a father who passively goes along with the plan. This is all thanks to Engelbert’s sister, Adelheid Wette, who originally conceived the idea of adapting Grimm’s tale to her children’s Christmas puppet show and wanted something less frightening for the little ones.

Mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain as Hansel and soprano Julia Ebner as Gretel in Virginia Opera’s production of Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Photo by David Polston.

n the past few years, rich, imaginative, and altogether different characterizations accompany our present zeitgeist – for example, Richard Jones’ 2007 Hansel and Gretel at the New York Metropolitan Opera with its Julie Taymor-like chef-angels. For the Virginia Opera production, director Kevin Newbury replaces a forest cottage with modern-day homelessness, and the witch’s trademark gingerbread house with a carnival food cart. Subtext shifts from ‘escape evil’ to ‘rise above flawed self’.

You will find many grumblers who want the old H&G back, with the gingerbread, thank you very much, and all the classical trappings. Life was simpler then, when fairytales were children’s stories and not Jungian archetypes or Freudian models for living.

Whatever one’s preference, Hansel and Gretel classic or Hansel and Gretel new, the Virginia Opera production is colorful, creative, and clever. The vocal performances, perhaps not as forceful or strong as might be hoped for, are very promising.

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra performs the score and is led by guest conductor Gerald Steichen. The chorus consists of students from the Governor’s School for the Arts STAR program.

Scenic Designer: Mimi Lien; Costume Designer: Paul Carey; Lighting: D.M. Wood; Wigs and Makeup: James P. McGough; Chorus Master: Adam Turner; Production Stage Manager: Christine Sanzone; Assistant Stage Director: Noah Himmelstein; Principal Coach: Laura Friesen.

Hansel and Gretel plays its final performance on Sunday, December 4, 2011, at 2 PM at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts — 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA. For tickets call (888) 945-2468 or (703) 993-2787, or purchase them online.