Appealing young cast highlights ‘Hansel and Gretel’
Pittsburgh Opera’s welcome revival of “Hansel & Gretel” in a new production Saturday night featured an especially appealing cast drawn from the young professional singers of its Resident Artists program and impressive stage direction by Ted Huffman.
Engelbert Humperdinck’s music is irresistible. He had been part of Richard Wagner’s scene a quarter-century before he wrote the opera, yet achieved a lightness and charm in “Hansel and Gretel” that no one associates with Wagner.
The opening scene, when the siblings play and dance instead of doing their chores, draws upon the delights of German folk music, just as Gustav Mahler did in his “Youth Magic Horn” songs. But Humperdinck’s musical language is actually sophisticated, quite original and fabulously orchestrated.
The world premiere in 1893 was conducted by composer Richard Strauss, who called it “an absolute masterpiece of the highest quality.” The next year, Gustav Mahler conducted it, and also loved it.
The opera was last mounted by the Pittsburgh Opera in 1987, a long time ago for such a remarkable piece. The Brothers Grimm fairy tale about the adventures of a brother and sister was turned into an opera both down-to-earth and fantastic by the composer working with his sister, Adelheid Witte.
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lauricella as Hansel and soprano Suzanne Vinnik as Gretel were each outstanding and a well-matched pair of siblings. Lauricella adjusted her timbre to an appealing boyish purity and shaped her lines with artful simplicity. Vinnik projected the strong personality of her role with impressively security and tonally rich singing.
Soprano Alexandra Loutsion sang both the mother and the witch. She superbly conveyed both aspects of the mother — fearsome to her children when she returns to find their work undone, but fully dimensional with her husband when he returns at the end of the first act.
Except that the siblings were so strong, Loutsion would have stolen the show with her bold characterization of the Witch, a masterful blend of vocal acting with stylized movement.
Baritone Kyle Oliver offered a winning portrayal of the father, with excellent diction. He’s young and his voice has room to grow, but his legato was most impressive. And he already has the dramatic taste to not overplay tipsiness into drunkenness.
As always, despite change in personnel over the years, the Children’s Festival Chorus was absolutely professional, both as the dulled spirits of children trapped by the Witch and their exuberant selves when they are freed by Hansel and Gretel after the Witch has been dispatched.
Glenn Lewis conducted Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra in an assured performance of a reduced orchestration. While there were places that would have benefited from a somewhat-faster pacing, the balances were excellent.
The new production in Creative and Performing Arts High School is a low-budget affair, with no backdrops. In the first act, set in the family home, the center of the stage is occupied by a huge pile of found furniture — a reflection of the family’s poverty. In the second act, in the forest, the chairs are suspended above the stage, perhaps as tree limbs. Only in the magical final act, in the witch’s house, is the furniture arranged normally.
Many parents brought young children, all well-behaved, to Saturday night’s performance.
“Hansel and Gretel” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5 at Creative and Performing Arts High School, Downtown. Admission is $50. Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghopera.org .