Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Almost enough grim in Seattle Opera's Hansel and Gretel

Sasha Cooke and Ashley Emerson. Photo by Philip Newton
When thinking of an opera that suits the Halloween season, Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel is a natural fit. Profound juxtapositions abound: the harvest season and the coming scarcity of winter, the gaiety of childhood under the specter of poverty, hunger when there is so much food nearby. Seattle Opera's performance at McCaw Hall on October 22 began with great promise, but ultimately the production yielded a mixed bag in terms of interpretation and overall effectiveness.

The musical performances were wonderful. Sasha Cooke as Hansel was especially arresting vocally--her delivery was rich and profound--a real pleasure to hear. Ashley Emerson joined as Gretel, and between the two they were extremely convincing as children--at times playful, bratty, unreasonably frenetic, strangely calm. There was no 'buy-in' to them as children--it simply felt natural. Marcy Stonikas as Gertrude imparted a sense of verismo as to the grinding effect of poverty--blinding anger and crushing weight were evident in her portrayal, as was ecstatic joy at the bounty of food that Peter brings home.  Mark Walters as Peter was excellent as well--his rolling, easy baritone formed the foundation of the effable father, and yet when he began singing about stories of the witch, he brought out the most in Humperdinck's score, reveling in the sense of creeping menace--infectious, inviting somehow.

Marcy Stonikas. Photo by Jacob Lucas
It was the non-delivery on this promise of menace that rendered the production less poignant than it otherwise could have been. Barbara de Limburg's sets right from the start pointed to something that could be special; giant images of duct-tape over a rag-tag curtain, the house an immense, ramshackle cardboard box with falling down walls--unflinching images of severe shortage and its effect on people's lives pointed toward a profound interpretation.  The sets continued to impress: the forest, tumbledown and barren of leaf or green, fit with the image of sparsity, and when coupled with the imperceptible creep of twilight, the children huddling in a pool of light with the darkling woods just behind, it set up for what should have been the fulfillment of the promise of a dark and disturbing happening.

John Easterlin as The Witch did a fine job within the confines of the production. His cackle was baudy and grating, and he warmed into the humor of the role as the final act moved on, and as the action moved toward its conclusion he did look disturbing--bald and frowzy and uncomfortable to look at. But somehow it never felt as if the children were really in peril--the candy house was imaginative, looking as though it were made of shelves of goodies from a box store with every sweet and soda imaginable. But it was confusing as to where the oven was--difficult to figure out why the witch kept climbing to the top of the house, and all the action happened outside of the house, which was really just a large object on stage, so it was only just before the witch was pushed into the oven that it became apparent where it was.

The final set, while eye-catching, was confusing in terms of the action, and the the witch  was portrayed as nonsensical and slapstick without enough believable predatory intent. That coupled with the sense that the children in the finale were essentially not scared (or not scared enough) of the witch led to the let-up on the promise of a dark ending--and make no mistake, a child forced into burning alive an evil witch in order to avoid being cannibalized is a dark ending--yet somehow by the end it just didn't feel that way.

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