TCO’s ‘Hansel’ is magical

Reviewed by Tony Villecco

Tri-Cities Opera has offered up a delicious concoction in the popular opera based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera has been enchanting adults and children alike since 1893, and TCO’s production, which opened Friday (Nov. 11) did not disappoint.

A small chamber orchestra led by conductor Vlad Iftinca plied out the score with accuracy and a spirited flow that kept the action moving on the stage of the Opera Center’s Savoca Hibbitt Hall. The story of two misbehaving children who get lost in the forest and encounter a child-eating witch was delineated very effectively by a strong cast of singers.

Innovative sets designed by AmarA*jk were able to be moved in and throughout the intimate stage. They were colorful and achieved the dark mystery of the woods, filled with beauty as well as a sense of disjointed reality. Director Cara Consilvio and stage manager Danielle Ranno took advantage of the small space, which never once seemed too cramped or awkward.

A new English translation by Kathleen Kelly was both inventive and kept the story flowing in a logical progression. It was easy to follow and aiding the singers in their interpretations.

Mary Beth Nelson’s Hansel was that of an awkward teen boy whose mission was to protect his sister despite his own fear. Her ability to transform herself physically into the male form was quite impressive, and her vocal ability was assured and lovely. As Gretel, soprano Stacey Geyer also conveyed the girlish charm of someone too young to comprehend the complexities of the world, and she sang with clarity of tone and a secure upper register. A vocal highlight was their “Evening Prayer,” one of the most beautiful melodies in the operatic canon despite its simplicity. The end of Act One was extremely moving in large part to this piece and the eight angels who appeared to protect the children.

Hansel and Gretel’s father was sung superbly by baritone Scott Purcell. His voice was almost too large for the small space, but the tone is warm and rich, and his stage presence was secure. Abigail Whitney Smith made for a dynamic mother to match her husband’s concern for the lost children. Both Christina Russo and Lianne Aharony as, respectively, the Sandman and the Dew Fairy, sang well.

The comedic role of the witch was spelled out by tenor Jordan Schreiner. Although the role was composed for a female mezzo-soprano, most modern-day productions, including at the Metropolitan, utilize a male for the role. This adds not only to the menacing comedic element but to the grotesque as well. Schreiner with his makeup and gray wig was certainly entertaining as he sized up his prospective “meal” (poor Hansel, locked in a cage.

The chorus of witch’s minions, angels and gingerbread children all performed well, filling up the stage with effective costuming provided by Jana Kucera. The lighting was by Craig Saeger and makeup and hair by Shushu Vaughn.

If you are as worn-out and weary as I was with the recent election season and in need of an uplifting break, I would encourage you to spend a night (or afternoon) in the dark forest, where awaits a gingerbread house and characters who will restore your faith, if not in the political process, at least in humanity and music’s ability to soothe your soul and transport you back to a simpler time: your childhood.

IF YOU GO: Performances of Hansel and Gretel (in English with English surtitles) continue at 7:30 p.m. today (Nov. 12) and Nov. 18 and 19 and at 3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 13) and Nov. 20 at the Tri-Cities Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. (NOTE: The show is NOT at The Forum.) Tickets are $50 and $40 ($20 for ages 12 and under; $10 student rush at the door). Call 772-0400 or visit www.tricitiesopear.com.

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