Saturday, November 17, 2018

Indiana University production of "Hansel and Gretel" appeals to all ages in Clowes Hall performance

The challenge to innocence is a big driver of folktales, so think of the potential resonance now when exaggerated fears of childhood dangers have influenced parenting as never before.

That means "Hansel and Gretel," an old German story given to world literature by the Brothers Grimm, loses some of its quaintness whenever a production of the Engelbert Humperdinck opera takes the stage nowadays.

It's doing so this weekend — the second of two performances is this afternoon —in a show trucked in from Bloomington, where the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera Theater mounted an updated production of "Hansel and Gretel" and debuted it at home just before Election Day.
Brother and sister apprehensively face a night in the dark woods.

Double-cast from the Jacobs School's wealth of sturdy young voices and conducted by Arthur Fagen, Friday's performance in Clowes Hall displayed the sureness of Opera Theater's customarily high production values and detailed acting-singing. What follows covers the cast of the Nov. 2 premiere; at today's matinee, all roles will be occupied by different students.

The opera is heavily orchestrated and uses some aspects of Richard Wagner's complex style in a way that's readily intelligible but slightly surprising as applied to such a simple story: Peasant siblings misbehave, are sent into the forest to fetch food, lose their way, go to sleep, wake up near a gingerbread cottage and are captured by a child-eating witch, who at length receives her comeuppance. The children are found by their anxious parents amid general rejoicing, supplemented by some of the crone's suddenly liberated larder of baked but uneaten victims.

Eleni Taluzek (Hansel) and Jennie Moser (Gretel) made the title characters the emotionally co-dependent if squabbling brother and sister to which Humperdinck gave lots of music in flowing arioso style. A major exception is the charming number in which Gretel teaches a dance to Hansel, and of course the imperishable Evening Prayer. Throughout the show, the two sopranos conveyed in voice, gesture, and movement the siblings'  juvenile energy, naughtiness, fearfulness, and eventually triumphant daring. Their Mother's first-act lament for her sorry lot is accompanied with Wagnerian pathos.

Sung in English with supertitles above the stage, the production never allows for a moment's confusion or obscurity for an audience of all ages. The rhymed couplets in Cori Ellison's translation are clever, but a bit stilted when the dialogue is serious. In the third act, the punning about the Witch's preferred diet is well-suited to the translation's near-doggerel.

Darian Clounts as the Witch showed flair at least as funny as it was scary.
The Witch, played with comical flair by Darian Clonts Friday, gets a lot of the best lines. The only problem is that the rollicking verse makes the Witch more amusing than stage director Michael Shell seems to have intended (according to my interview with him). Costuming and staging of the Witch's fraught interaction with the kids were marvelously detailed, but it's unlikely any younger audience members had even a momentary scare.

The Evening Prayer and Dream Pantomime, a high point of the show both musically and theatrically, were wonderfully realized through Thomas C. Hase's lighting design. The immortal work on sets and costume design by Max Rothlisberger (who died in 2003) has been supplemented in the costume area by Mark Frederic Smith and Dana Tzvetkov.

Brother and sister are charmed by mysterious dancers at night.
The whole team, with choreography for six sylph-like dancers by Christian Claessens completing the enchantment, is responsible for the magical second-act climax. In the third act, there is more magic to come, much of it pyrotechnical, before all the children and  Hansel and Gretel's parents join in a chorus of pious gratitude, swelled by the adept orchestra.

This cast has Geuna Kim as the Dew Fairy and Mandeline Coffey as the Sandman, attending briefly on the lost children with melodious reassurances in Act 2. The parents — Father heartily celebrating his good fortune in town at first, Mother fretful and scolding — were sung in well-projected fashion by Jeremiah Sanders and Hayley Lipke.

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