In a cynical age, Sarasota Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel” works its traditional magic

March 08, 2010

Angela Mortellaro as Gretel and Heather Johnson as Hansel at Sarasota Opera. Photo: Rod Millington.

Even with—or perhaps because of— its radiant music, childish innocence, and spiritual theme, Hansel und Gretel has fallen on hard times.

Oh, Engelbert Humperdinck’s children’s opera still receives plenty of performances to be sure, but when larger companies tackle it today, it’s usually in the form of a cynical deconstruction, exaggerating the darker elements in predictable postmodern fashion. Most emblematic of the contemporary approach is the well-traveled, hysterically overpraised Richard Jones-John MacFarlane staging, which transforms Humperdinck’s opera into a camp, grotesquely Freudian nightmare.

Traditional productions are the rule at Sarasota Opera and, while that may make for occasionally stodgy results in some works, in others it proves refreshingly retro, as with the current revival of Hansel und Gretel.

The company has more experience with Humperdinck than most, having presented the German composer’s Königskinder in 1997. There were children aplenty at Sunday’s matinee, and even with one principal withdrawing due to illness, the practical magic of Sarasota Opera’s charming production made for an enjoyable afternoon.

While the twee English translation can set teeth agrind (“Come, little mousey, come into my house-y”), the musical values were on a consistently high level, and David P. Gordon’s evocative storybook sets and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s colorful costumes added to the pleasures (the Phineas Fogg getups for the Sandman and Dew Fairy notwithstanding).

Angela Mortellaro was an exceptionally convincing Gretel, the petite soprano credible as a playful young girl, singing with a rich, youthful soprano voice and strongly conveying Gretel’s terror at being lost in the woods.

Stephanie Lauricella gracefully stepped into the role of Hansel Sunday for an ailing Heather Johnson, displaying a fine high mezzo, and bringing apt rambunctious androgeny to the role.

Stella Zambalis was a worthy Witch singing solidly and providing individual comic touches without going over the top. Hearty and big-voiced, Evan Brummel was a terrific Peter, completely inhabiting the role of the children’s loving but irresponsible father. Valerie Kopinski proved a complementary rich-voiced mate as Gertrud, their fretting mother. Director Jeffrey Marc Buchman moved the traffic efficiently.

The fulcrum of the performance was the glorious playing of the Sarasota Opera Orchestra under Anthony Barrese. The conductor has been impressive with colorful scores (Sarasota’s Lakme in 2005), and Barrese drew iridescent, richly textured playing in the orchestral set pieces as well as supporting the singers with great skill.

Hansel and Gretel runs through March 13.

One Response to “In a cynical age, Sarasota Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel” works its traditional magic”

  1. Posted Mar 08, 2010 at 10:30 pm by Tony Tiberini

    Why wasn’t done in the made for German language? Is the thought that the Sarasota audience is less sophisticated? Perhaps it’s that Barrese doesn’t know German? I’ve seen it in other venues with mostly the German language and maybe once in English. It’s really written for German that’s why I would not go see it this time. The German sound is so beautiful in Hanzel and Gretel. I went to the last performance of it here in Sarasota and heard it in German. I didn’t this time because of the English. Please stop demeaning the people in this area as though they don’t have the sophistication to see and hear it in German. I promise I’ll go see the next next year that its in German. I hope St. Joan of Arc is not being sung in English. Please ask Victor to perform at least one German Opera, every so often. The last played was the Flying Dutchman many years ago. The German operas have so much to offer. Thanks.