Posts Tagged ‘Humperdinck’

Opera Review: Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

From Seven in One Blow to Snow White and now Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers Grimm have defined my December. Grandest and "Grimmest" of all is the last, presented by the Metropolitan Opera in a gorgeous English-language production by Richard Jones that originated at the Welsh National Opera and first ran at the Met in 2007.

With glorious voices, delightful acting, and Fabio Luisi conducting a fired-up Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the production boasts John Macfarlane's beautiful if somewhat modest (for the Met) sets, which carry through the central motif (food!) – from the family's humble kitchen, all in off-white, to the dark green dreamlike woods, and finally to the Witch's gingerbread house, looking like a fantasyland test kitchen.

As the title characters, Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson sing in lovely colors, leading a strong cast all of whom seem to be having a wonderful time. Tenor Philip Langridge made a splash as the Witch two years ago and has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm, giving her a depth of character that easily survives the table-dancing, the funny and slightly campy costume, and the clouds of cocoa powder and face full of cake. Dwayne Croft's sturdy voice and capacity for boisterous humor make him ideal for the role of the father, and Rosalind Plowright does wonderfully sympathetic work in Act I as the harried mother, who gets impatient with her children only because she can't feed them.

Engelbert Humperdinck's score has been justly celebrated for over a century,  and Mr. Luisi strikes just the right balance of Wagnerian sublimity (Humperdinck was a Wagner protégé) and the warm angelic brilliance the tale inspired in the composer. That warmth is most pronounced in the gorgeous "Fourteen Angels" song with which the lost Hansel and Gretel sing themselves to sleep in the dark woods. The chef-angels dream sequence that follows is a scene of exquisite, wordless beauty.

Once the Witch has been roasted, the family reunited, and the Witch's gingerbread victims restored to humanity, the opera concludes with a lovely chorale proclaiming "When in need or dark despair, God will surely hear our prayer." But the religious patina is purely a matter of faith; the children have survived their ordeal solely because of their own quick thinking, Gretel's in particular. It's a fairy story, after all, a crusty old folk tale gathered by the Grimms from ancient sources, and the Christian God is a latecomer to this musical feast; perhaps he'll be seated during intermission, but only at the discretion of the management. There's much more primal business to attend to, summed up in the final image: as all celebrate their safety and momentary bounty, a leering Hansel raises a roasted Witch-limb to his mouth as the house goes dark.

Rounding out the cast, Jennifer Johnson is the Sandman and Erin Morley his sunrise counterpart the Dew Fairy.  These two fine singers in cameo roles prove that the Met can summon an embarrassment of riches even for its smallest and most family-friendly offerings. Not that anything at the Metropolitan Opera can really be called small, though; this Hansel and Gretel is serious opera, if by "serious" we mean a story with depth, world-class performances, and glorious music. A joy for all ages, it would make a fine introduction for any opera neophyte, child or adult. Hansel and Gretel runs in repertory through Jan. 2 at the Met.

Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

The Metropolitan Opera, founded in 1883, moved into its snazzy Lincoln Center quarters in 1966. The Met opera facility is one of the largest in the world, seating nearly 4,000.

Designed by architect Wallace Harrison, who was also responsible for Rockefeller Center and the United Nations complex, the Met's Lincoln Center theater is one of New York City's grandest spaces, with 32 Swarovski crystal chandeliers; beautiful wood paneling, all from one titanic rosewood tree; a gold-leaf ceiling; maroon, maroon everywhere; and, for the best acoustics, no right angles anywhere. The proscenium stage measures 54 feet by 54 feet and is fully 110 feet high, allowing for larger sets than nearly anywhere else.

Not only that, multiple sets can be slid onto and off the stage for quick changes between acts and productions, while the huge space belowdecks has room to store five or six other complete productions. (Additional productions are stashed in New Jersey warehouses, ready to be called back into action when the company wishes to restage an old favorite.)

That quick-change ability makes the Met's long and busy season possible. The 2009-2010 campaign features an amazing 28 productions, including eight new ones. Unlike in regular theater, the big opera companies keep successful productions in repertory for years, sometimes decades. This year's La Bohème is the Franco Zeffirelli staging that dates back to 1981, for example. On the other hand, the much-discussed production of Janá?ek's From the House of the Dead is brand new at the Met this year. It's the new productions that make news, naturally. But it's often the old ones that bring the biggest crowds for the longest periods of time.

Like Broadway and museums, opera is recognizing the importance of the blogosphere in promoting culture and the arts. The Met took a group of web writers on a backstage tour last night, giving us a rare chance to see the nuts and bolts of the opera house, including the workshop, where sets are built and repaired. The crispy person and the chefs pictured, who are in the shop for some touch-ups, come from Hansel and Gretel, while parts and relics of productions past are everywhere, such as the Nixon in China portal leg and the unidentified heads, also pictured.

The Met, like other opera companies, knows that it must not only present operas but help create the next generation of opera fans through education and outreach if the art is to survive the 21st century. To this end they are going far beyond merely inviting bloggers backstage and mounting family-friendly productions like Hansel. The Met's HD Live in Schools programs transmits live performances directly to schools all across the country, while its Live in HD simulcasts have been drawing crowds (close to a million people in 2007) to movie theaters, where you can now also see live performances from the Gran Teatre del Liceu from Barcelona and La Scala from Milan.