Hänsel und Gretel

For Intro to Music Criticism:

The Grimm fairy tales in their original form are balanced between wondrous magic and harsh realism, children’s delights and gruesome violence: Cinderella is helped by doves and has golden slippers, but is forced to sweep ashes, and her stepmother cuts off parts of her daughters’ feet to make them fit Cinderella’s slipper.

Oberlin Opera Theater’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic Hänsel und Gretel (Nov. 6, 8, 9, and 10 in Hall Auditorium) attempted to incorporate those divergent strains, resulting in two successful acts and one that was unconvincing and unrelated.

In the first act, Hänsel and Gretel are sent foraging in the woods after angering their mother, who then recants and sets out in pursuit of them with her husband. Christopher McCollum’s set was colorless and austere, emphasizing the family’s poverty through a highly flammable backdrop filled with brooms, bundles of straw, and clusters of matchstick-like wood that creatively hinted at trees.

Director Jonathon Field depicted the children and their family as rough-and-tumble, fiery characters who call fisticuffs dancing and quickly reach for a broom as a violent reprimand. In this context, the mother’s speedy banishment of the children to the woods and their taunting relationship with each other is completely believable.

Nicole Levesque’s Hänsel took the lead in the children’s relationship, with her confidence and powerful, full voice. Her masculine stances aided in the illusion of a boy played by a woman, and her alternations between smugness and pouting were entirely in keeping with an adolescent.

Though Levesque led, Gretel is the more clever character, teasing and prodding Hänsel. Emily Hopkins was a mocking older sister, jabbing at her brother with her clear, dulcet voice.  

Hannah Hagerty shone as the exhausted mother, her brow furrowed with worry and fear of her drinking husband, played by Mike Davis. Haggerty’s crisp consonants and dramatic tone contrasted with Davis’s rounded, blunt voice and his more light-hearted attitude.

The second act contains Humperdinck’s most beautiful music, and was the highlight of Oberlin’s production. Field ignored any trace of violence or darkness in favor of crafting a magical scene in an entrancing wood.  A transparent scrim across the front of the stage gave the forest a dreamlike quality, while a technicolor patch of flowers amidst grass lent the matchstick trees a splash of brightness. Sliding sections of trees made the set feel like a pop-up book of fairy tales, casting a spell over the stage.

Victoria Davis brought a rich voice to her Sandman, though a beaked mask sometimes muffled her voice. Her counterpart Rebecca Achtenberg was a humorous Dew Fairy, adding some slapstick to the production.

The Evening Prayer sequence was wonderfully served by the enchanting setting and staging, white-cloaked angels surrounding the children as they slept under a rising moon.

And then the moon exploded.

 The massive silver moon, a projection, was stunning, especially as it slowly fragmented, its pieces appearing as glitter over the angels on stage. But it slowly became a ball of fire, a strange and inexplicable choice that heralded coming miscalculations.

Where the first two acts had relatively subdued and unspecific sets, the third was blaring. The witch’s gaudy house could have been a float in a Brazilian Carnival. Though fun, it didn’t fit in with the rest of the production. Chris Flaharty’s fantastic costume for Karen Jesse as the witch was similarly kaleidoscopic but less incongruous, a motley collection of fabrics that was set off by the other characters’ traditional, 19th century peasant clothing.

Jesse, a visiting artist, was a psychotic witch, her cackles piercing through the orchestra as she fondled a creepy baby doll. The doll was another weird touch, an overly obvious signal of the witch’s insanity.

The end of the show was the oddest theatrically. Having shoved the witch into the oven, Hänsel and Gretel proceeded to chop off her corpse’s head, aided by her revived victims. The final chorus was sung with scowls and while doing power salutes. Apparently, the candy they ate off the witch’s house didn’t sit too well. This anger completely ignored the joyous and reverential music to satisfy Field’s vision, a jarring end to an otherwise enjoyable production.  

Luckily, the opera was musically excellent both on the part of the singers and the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra. Conductor Raphael Jiménez was hyper-romantic, creating emotional climaxes but not overwhelming the singers. The strings especially deserve praise, with their even vibrato and incredibly clean execution.

Even with a few production missteps, Oberlin’s Hänsel und Gretel was enchanting, a magical rendering of this classic. 

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