Saturday, February 9, 2019

Oregon Symphony teams up with Manual Cinema for fantastic Hansel and Gretel

Wow! It’s amazing what artists can do with overhead projectors! Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based company that specializes in shadow puppetry, elevated the largely forgotten overhead projector into a splendid storytelling device, using impeccable timing and imagination to enhance the Oregon Symphony’s presentation of Hansel and Gretel on Saturday, February 2, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The imaginative visual component provided by Manual Cinema worked seamlessly with the orchestra, under Music Director Carlos Kalmar, and a stellar line-up of soloists to wonderfully convey Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera in a refreshing way.

Hansel and Gretel has been a staple of opera houses everywhere since its premiere in 1893, due to its beautiful music and charming story of two children, who get lost in the woods and almost gobbled up by a gingerbread witch. However, the storyline, based on one of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, has a serious undercurrent, because the children’s family is poor and on the brink of starvation. With nothing in the house to eat, the mother, in a pitch of anger over the children’s frivolous behavior, sends them into the forest to pick strawberries.

The Oregon Symphony’s production of Hansel and Gretel marked its North American premiere (the original version was presented at the La Monnaie De Munt, Brussels) as part of the orchestra’s SoundStories series. Several black-clad puppeteers stood next to four overhead projectors that were lined up in front of a screen behind the orchestra on the left side of the stage. The puppeteers deftly handled a complicated series of cutouts and also did live-action segments – all of which was projected onto a large screen centered on the back wall. All of the images, including the live-acting flowed seamlessly in sync with the music in a balletic way with no glitches of any sort.

A superb slate of singers portrayed all of the characters with panache. The voices of Chelsea Duval-Major as Hansel and Maeve Höglund as Gretel complimented each other perfectly, highlighting their collaboration with the “Angel’s Prayer” and the duet to celebrate the witch’s death. Jenny Schuler created the stern mother, who realizes the gravity of her mistake after the warm-hearted father, Gregory Dahl, arrives home with food that he had bundled together after dumpster diving. The sparkling, clear voice of Yungee Rhie wonderfully delivered the goods in the roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. John Easterlin gave a tour-de-force performance as the Witch, punctuating his stentorian lines with an incredibly entertaining combination of cackles. The voices of the freed children were conveyed with distinction by the Pacific Youth Choir.

The orchestra performed outstandingly from beginning to end with terrific emotion that provided the connective tissue for the entire enterprise. Every section was on top of its game. It was fun to watch percussionist Niel DePonte play the cuckoo whistle for one of the forest scenes.

It was too bad that the supertitles had to be placed on either side of the orchestra rather than above the large screen, but that arrangement is the only one that works in the hall. The amplification of the singers muddied the diction a bit, but it was necessary due to limited rest for the singers between performances.

Bringing an opera into the concert hall with the visual aid of a group like Manual Cinema is much cheaper than doing a full-blown opera production. The success of Hansel and Gretel makes me want to hear more. Perhaps there is a way for The Oregon Symphony to commission another such endeavor. Just think of the possibilities! Well, you could reach for the sky with a complete Ring Cycle. Hmm…

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