With this weekend’s warm production of Elgelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera Hansel and Gretel, the Minnesota Orchestra and In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre make Orchestra Hall feel as cozy as a living room.
Humperdinck’s opera has been entertaining children and adults since before there were moving pictures, let alone moving pictures on palm-sized devices, but its power to captivate remains fully intact in the 21st century—at least in the hands of director Robert Neu and his excellent creative team. I glanced over at the young children sitting near me every once in a while, and they were absorbed from start to finish.
It’s brisk, by operatic standards: excluding a 15-minute intermission, the production runs just a few minutes longer than the Guthrie’s newly condensed Christmas Carol. The first act concerns Hansel (Christina Baldwin) and Gretel (Jennifer Baldwin Peden) being cast out of their house to hunt for berries after their rambunctious antics frustrate their mother (Lola Watson). In the second act, the pair get lost and fall asleep in the spooky woods. (Traditionalists be warned: there’s no dropping of crumbs.) The third act gives everyone what they’ve been waiting for: the discovery of a giant candy house and a harrowing tangle with the witch (Vera Mariner) who lives there. At the opera’s conclusion, the Minnesota Boychoir make a cameo appearance as gingerbread boys liberated from the witch’s grasp.
|hansel and gretel, playing through november 29 at orchestra hall. for tickets ($15-$70) and information, see minnesotaorchestra.org.|
Musically, the production is sterling. Under the baton of newly-promoted Pops conductor Sarah Hicks, the orchestra glides like a knife through Humperdinck’s buttery score. Singing a fine English translation of the German libretto by the composer’s sister Adelheid Wette, the cast appropriately let Humperdinck’s acclaimed melodies do the work: no one hams it up.
Well, vocally they don’t ham it up. In terms of acting…what do you expect when your set is edible? Baldwin and Peden, real-life sisters who should do more theater for children, have a convincing and endearing rapport as Hansel and Gretel; and Mariner plays the witch as more batty than wicked. Though she clearly enjoys the child-gobbling portion of her job (she gleefully salts Hansel’s arm), her favorite part of the witching life seems to be the cackling.
Visually, the production is best described as postmodern. Joseph Stanley’s sets seem to place the opera in its traditional setting, but Kathy Kohl’s costumes incorporate contemporary elements: in a backwards baseball cap, Baldwin as Hansel looks not unlike Alex Winter in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Mariner’s witch costume conveys a sense of what Punky Brewster might have looked like if she grew up to be a bag lady. In the Heart of the Beast’s towering angel puppets come out of nowhere—both physically and aesthetically—at the conclusion of Act II to provide a moment of transcendence as they appear to watch over the sleeping children.
The holiday season is about surprises, and one of this season’s biggest surprises is that one of the best shows for children (and adults) is a 19th-century opera playing at Orchestra Hall. It’s onstage only through November 29; see it while you can.