Hansel and Gretel
Set in the Gilded Age, this operatic fairy tale really resonates with the present
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., April 30, 2010
Hansel and Gretel
Dell Hall at the Long Center,
701 W. Riverside, 472-5992
Through May 2
Running time: 2 hr., 10 min.
Woods and woodcutters aren't nearly as plentiful today as when the Brothers Grimm wrote about a brother and sister running afoul of a witch whose house was made of gingerbread, so relocating the siblings to an urban metropolis sure seems a sensible way to connect this folktale of yore to a contemporary audience. After all, who hasn't at some point felt lost among a forest of glass and steel spires or threatened by some forbidding stranger on a shadowy city street?
Transporting the story to New York City – which, heaven knows, can be as ominous as the Black Forest ever was – would have likely been enough to make Austin Lyric Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel feel relevant to a modern audience. But in also setting it in 1893 (the date when Engelbert Humperdinck's opera premiered), this staging originally created for New York City Opera sets up a much deeper resonance with the present. Though it is admittedly a time so far removed from our own to appear quaint, the Gilded Age has enough potent parallels with today – widespread anxieties about a growing immigrant population, staggering disparities between the nation's richest and poorest citizens, children preyed on by abusive adults – that it gives this fairy tale the immediacy of a news report. Placing Hansel and Gretel in a tiny tenement flat – the window box frame and forced perspectives of John Conklin's set add to the apartment's cramped feel – brings their family's poverty closer to home; they're one paycheck from the streets. When the siblings have to sleep on the ground in Central Park, they recall the homeless teens and runaways of contemporary cities and look all the more vulnerable for it. And in moving the Witch from the deep woods to a Park Avenue address, the ultimate outsider becomes the ultimate insider: a blue-blooded, privileged member of the upper crust, for whom the rules of ordinary society don't apply. She's free to take advantage of or abuse whoever she wants without consequence, an attitude infuriatingly familiar from any of the recent congressional hearings with Wall Street bankers or Detroit auto CEOs. It all gives a somewhat surprising weight to the production, certainly in the first two acts.
Perversely, the show lightens up just as it gets darkest. Though the Witch's abuse of children and murderous ways can cause some queasiness in these days of Catholic Church scandals and child abductions filling the headlines, Liz Cass manages to have some lip-smacking fun with the character. Looking like Cruella de Vil's grandmama and displaying the dark wit of Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett, the Austin mezzo makes her Witch larger than life enough to defuse the creep factor. She's a villainess we can love to hate, laughing at her incessant references to sweets and eating – she talks about grub more than a Central Market foodie – and then cheering without guilt when her imperious keister is shoved in the oven (perhaps a sentence worth considering for the Goldman Sachs gang).
One thing I've always liked about this particular fairy tale is that the kids don't have to be rescued by some grownup (I'm looking at you, Red Riding Hood) but control their fate themselves. Here, Adriana Zabala's Hansel and Alicia Berneche's Gretel come across as strong and resourceful enough to save their own bacon, as it were. (They also convey convincingly that alternating friction and affection between siblings.) But I have to say, there is another hero in this Hansel and Gretel: ALO principal conductor Richard Buckley. His sensitivity to Humperdinck's score draws forth the beauty in every melody, accentuates the sumptuousness of every harmony. Lines swell as gently as the light at dawn and flow with the force of a river in flood. You're constantly aware of the music and how exquisitely rich and full and heartfelt it sounds. It's Buckley's artistry that provides this fairy tale with the happiest ending of all.