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Review: Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel: A Tasty Child’s “Treat” for all!
WHERE: Birch North Park Theatre
WHEN: November 13, 15, 19, 21, 22, 2009
7:30pm Thursday, Fridays, Saturdays;
2:30pm Sundays

Children beware! There is a witch in the forest (and she sounds like your dad)! Hansel and Gretel, performed for the first time ever by the Lyric Opera, was as delight.

The children-filled audience reminded me that this might be their very first Opera and therefore it might create quite a challenge. The story of two mischevious children lost in the woods is scary in itself, but, Hansel, performed by Hai-Ting Chinn, and Gretel, played by Kate Oberjat, are also eventually lured by a witch that turns children into gingerbread men. Scary indeed!

Act 1 was difficult, even for the seasoned Opera fan. We are introduced to the children who frolic and dance around the cottage while the parents are away. Both characters sang with intensity; however, I could not grasp any of the libretto (written by Adelheid Wette and translated into English by Constance Bache).

When mother returns, exhausted from trying to sell her brooms, she becomes upset that the children spilled milk so she sends them out to pick strawberries for dinner. Peter, the father, returns and becomes frantic when he finds out that the children are alone in the forest. Any child unfamiliar with the story might be lost themselves way before the next Act.

There are instances when the animals, played by the children of the Lyric Academy, are a little distracting from the music and story, but nevertheless wake up anyone that might have fallen asleep in Act 1.

In Act 2: The Forest, the stage takes a much more dramatic role in the production as the children are in the forest and begin to get scared. There is a lovely moment when the Sandman sings the children to sleep. It is a charming performance that is both touching and adorable.

Actually, the Lyric Academy’s participation in this performance give the children a chance to relate much more to the Opera than the story itself. You can see the family support in the audience when the Animals, Angels, and Gingerbread come out on stage. A little girl sitting in front of me with her grandparents told me that her older brother was in the Opera. She was so happy when he came out on stage, that she even cried.

The introduction of the witch in Act 3 (performed by Leon Natker), was the moment when we were strongly reminded that we are indeed at the Opera. He has a strong voice that carries and demands our attention. His role as the witch brought comic relief, but I couldn’t help but see it through the eyes of a gay man. Did the story turn into that of a drag queen that wants to eat children? I think that makes the story even scarier so I just pretended it was NOT a drag queen but an evil witch with a deep voice. I did wonder whether the children knew, or if they had questions on the way home about the man-witch.

There were moments in Act 3 where the witch wasn’t scary but entertaining. The “hocus pocus” and “coo, coo’s” made perfect sense to me. I loved how the witch went airborne and even said “Flight 666, coming in for a landing”. The one moment that everyone can relate to is at the end when the children push the Witch into the oven and free the other children. There were also times of genuine children vulnerability that we all can relate to and that makes this performance an achievement with regards to introducing kids to Opera.

Overall, the music is perfect, it is a lovely performance by the Lyric Opera and a great way to start the Holiday Season. If you want to enjoy an evening with your children and familiarize them with Opera, then take them to see Hansel and Gretel. The Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre provides an excellent venue where every seat can enjoy the performance in a non-intimidating setting where children are part of the performance.