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A Fairy-Tale Hansel

Bowie Center for the Performing Arts, Maryland
01/17/2008 -  and January 18, 19*, 20
Engelbert Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel
Waka Osifchin (Gretel), Beth Stewart (Hansel), Joyce Lundy (Mother),
Jose Sacin(Father), Maura Welsh (Sandman/Dew Fairy), Susan Sevier (Witch),
The Maryland Opera Society Children’s Chorus, Orchestra, and Corps de Ballet
Gerald F. Muller (conductor)
Mary Metcalf (costumes), Roger Bennett Riggle, Jr. (director/choreographer), James Mulhern, III (production)

The Maryland Opera Society, in its first fully staged production, scored a remarkable success with this old-fashioned, fairy tale rendition of Hansel and Gretel. The now “untraditional” use of traditional painted backdrops, flats, and set pieces allowed the
colorful production to unfold like a children’s storybook. It was captivating to the eye and transported the audience to the imaginary land of a child’s fancy.
Also, the mixing of young, upcoming voices with those of mature and seasoned professionals allotted the proper vocal weight and color to the various ages of the opera’s characters.

The decision to cast the title roles with young singers was indeed a happy choice. Waka Osifchin’s soaring and lyric soprano was ideal as the young Gretel. Mezzo Beth Stewart, who sang as her brother Hansel, also possessed a light-timbered voice, which convincingly portrayed the sound of a young boy. Not only did they sing and act well but they danced well, and director/choreographer Roger Riggle certainly gave them many light-footed steps and antics, which provided a most animated characterization of the sibling duo.

The role of the Mother was sung by soprano Joyce Lundy. In the Humperdinck version of this story the mother is not the “hard-hearted” and cruel woman envisioned in the original Grimm’s fairy tale, but rather a woman distraught by her family’s meager circumstances. Ms. Lundy delivered an excellent portrayal of a mother driven to the edge by poverty and woe. Her voice, lush and full, conveyed great pathos and was easily the most exciting singing in the performance.

Baritone Jose Sacin did not sound comfortable in the role of the Father. A former tenor, it was puzzling to hear him omit the written High A. In fact his entire voice sounded like a tenor pushed down into a baritone range. It must be said however, that he is a convincing actor and delivered his part with impeccably clear diction.

The small but important roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy were charmingly captured by soprano Maura Welsh. Her characterizations enhanced by a well-choreographed delivery.

Needless to say, the star of the show (Humperdinck wrote it that way) was contralto Susan Sevier as the Witch Rosina Daintymouth. Her snarling and highly colored voice was simply perfect for this role. Outrageously costumed and “made-up,” she was a fright to behold. The insidious cackle she produced even scared me!

The corps de ballet and children’s chorus were a highlight of this production and the icing on the cake of this delightful confection. It would be hard to imagine a better costumed or danced ballet, even in a major opera house. And the children of the chorus, who appear only at the very end, completely upstaged everyone in the show. Children have a way of doing that and the packed audience rewarded them vociferously.

Director/Choreographer Roger Bennett Riggle, Jr. showed great imagination in his concept of this opera and demonstrated a finely tuned sensitivity in the direction of opera singers, as well as an understanding of operatic conventions. The focal points were always delineated and the characterizations well developed. His work is most impressive.

At the helm of the production was the Maryland Opera Society’s Artistic Director, composer/conductor Gerald F. Muller. He led a very tight performance, producing a rich and warm sound from the large orchestra that never overwhelmed the singers. He seemed to take great pleasure in articulating the many leitmotifs in this work, poking fun in particular at the motif of the giants Fasolt and Fafner, “borrowed” by Humperdinck from Wagner’s Das Rheingold to express the dangers that lie hidden to the children in the deep, dark forest. Maestro Muller is a seasoned opera conductor who understands the art of accompanying. He gives his singers plenty of room for breathing and expression without ever letting the music become flabby. This is a finely developed technique that somehow escapes many modern conductors. It was joy to watch him in action.

Hansel and Gretel was an ambitious first production for the Maryland Opera Society. It was well conceived, well cast, and well performed. I applaud their decision to mount the opera in English (which was easily understood), and forego the use of super-titles. It kept the focus where it should be: on the stage. This type of production develops new audiences of all ages for opera in a most positive fashion. I wish them ongoing success and can only hope they will continue in this manner.

Micaele Sparacino



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