Back in 1965, a struggling British pop singer named Arnold Dorsey was told by his manager that he would never make it with that name. They pulled a copy of Grove's Music Dictionary from the office shelves, opened it to a random page and selected his new name: Engelbert Humperdinck. Dorsey would go on to sell 130 million records, including fifteen Top 50 singles and the song "Lesbian Seagull" for the soundtrack of Beavis and Butthead Do America.
The long-dead nineteenth-century German composer from whom they copped the name had done pretty well for himself as well. He had written the most beloved and successful children's opera of all time, Hansel and Gretel. In an era when most composers scrabbled for a living, the royalties from Hansel and Gretel allowed Humperdinck to buy a small palace in the forest of his beloved Rhineland. There he spent his time decorating, gardening and turning out a piece of music from time to time. The elements that made Hansel and Gretel so successful in the nineteenth century are in full view in the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' vivid and enchanting new production of this classic. It's a night of very entertaining theater for the whole family.
Humperdinck's opera was the result of a lucky accident. His sister, Adelheid Wette, asked him to write some music for a children's play she had adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. He devised piano settings to some German folk melodies for the four songs his nieces and nephews were to perform in this family entertainment. In the process he realized the potential for orchestrating these melodies. He slowly added more tunes while his sister kept fleshing out the old fairy tale. Wette was the Disney of her time. She softened the Grimms' brutal version. She introduced Hansel and Gretel's tipsy and lovable father and a sandman and a fairy and a chorus of angels. Within three years of the family play, the opera was debuting before rapt and enthusiastic audiences in Weimar.
In St. Louis Leah Wool and Sandra De Athos play Hansel and Gretel. Both are sopranos, but Wool's voice tends toward the lower and darker mezzo end of the soprano range, perfect for Hansel. Costumed in Raggedy Ann and Andy gingham, they bring the poverty-stricken children sparklingly to life. De Athos is particularly engaging, imbuing Gretel with lively and playful energy. Maria Zifchak, who plays the stepmother and the wicked witch, is an imposing singer and a fabulous actress. As the stepmother she does the near impossible, making the sorrows and travails of a fairy-tale character moving. Later, as the witch, she's cackling good fun, down to her last outburst from the wildly smoking oven into which Hansel and Gretel have shoved her.
The hallmark of this opera is its simple and beautiful music. Humperdinck uses folk melodies as themes for each of the characters. He melds these with other motifs, designed to create moods from serene to foreboding, into lushly harmonic soundscapes. Like all OTSL productions, Hansel and Gretel is sung in English. The translation sticks to plain language and allows the singers to accentuate the straightforward melodies. But these pleasures are for adults.
Director Michael Patrick Albano and set and costume designer Emanuele Luzzati never forget that this show is for children. They've streamlined it to a crisp hour and 45 minutes. The staging is absolutely magical. The effects range from a dreamy, ethereal sandman who sprinkles stardust over the sleeping children to fantastical animals and angels who stand guard over Hansel and Gretel during their night in the woods to a witch's broom that flies on its own. This is a production for the Harry Potter generation. Kids who are used to computer-generated special effects will be charmed, and maybe even amazed, by these handmade ones. It's the perfect introduction to this kind of theater.
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