Don’t forget the breadcrumbs!

Don’t forget the breadcrumbs!

Dayton Opera presents Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel

By Eric Street
Photo: Dayton Opera presents Hansel and Gretel on Friday, Feb. 21 and Sunday Feb 23 in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center; photo: J. David Levy
One of the most thoroughly charming and tuneful operas ever to take the stage, Dayton Opera’s  collaborative Hansel and Gretel production truly offers something for every member of the family. It’s an opera to savor on many levels. Yes, you and your youngest friends already know the plot – it’s based on the timeless classic folk tale by the Brothers Grimm, published in German in 1812. The story is both heartwarming and dark, as two courageous children rely on their own pluck and cleverness to thwart the menacing, cannibalistic intentions of the wicked witch, played in this production by Stage Director Gary Briggle.

Briggle, a Dayton Opera favorite, returns to not only direct this innovative production, but also to appear on stage and bring to life the role of the conniving, over-the-top witch who lures Hansel and Gretel into her confectionary world.

This will be Briggle’s seventh time working with the Dayton Opera. He most recently directed last season’s delightful Marriage of Figaro, and previously served as director, singer, or both in the Tragedy of Carmen, The Barber of Seville, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and Candide.

Hansel and Gretel do find protectors along their treacherous way through the dark forest, populated in this creative production by puppets from the Zoot Theatre Company. Tristan Cupp will bring the puppetry magic of his Zoot Theatre Company onto the Mead stage to delight the audience with forest creatures – mystical denizens of the enchanted forest and the weird, whimsical world of the witch.

“It’s a magical show,” Cupp said. “It’s not super-scary, but it tends toward the creepier side. The puppets help with that! We have four puppeteers working the puppets. We’ve taken some of the characters of the story and made them into puppets. The largest is four, five feet – and that’s just the head! We have a Sandman, the Dew Fairy, a big white stag, a raven, owl, dove and bat. Some of the puppets will be singing along while the singers themselves stand offstage. They’re all part of the magic of the show. It’s going to be fun!”

Although the children’s long trek through the forest turns dark and fearsome with the coming of night, a masked band of angels watches over them as they prepare for sleep on the ground with an evening prayer. Joining the singing actors and puppets on stage will be dancers from the Dayton Ballet II Senior Company, choreographed by Abigail Beam, who makes her choreographic debut with this performance. This will not be her first time working with Dayton Opera on Hansel and Gretel, since she appeared as a dancer in Dayton Opera’s 1989 production. The angel dance is set to music familiar to many in English translation: “When at night I go to sleep, 14 angels round me keep.” Its comforting musical motif first appears with the beginning of the overture.

Members of the Dayton Opera 2013-2014 artists-in-residence program will appear on stage with the Dayton Opera in the title and featured roles of this production. Soprano Rachel Policar, winner of the 2013 New York Lyric Opera Theatre National Vocal Competition, makes her Dayton Opera debut in the role of Gretel.

“I love this role, I love this opera and I am beyond thrilled to be doing it,” she said. The Dayton Opera production will be her third time assuming the role. Mezzo-Soprano Jennifer Panara, praised for her “voice of immense brilliance and versatility” (Bonn, Germany), also makes her Dayton Opera debut in the role of Hansel. “This is my first time doing Hansel, and I’ve wanted to do it for several years,” Panara said. “The music is beautiful and the orchestra part is great – so lush! I’m just really enjoying the chance to be doing Hansel.” As artists-in-residence, the two are already well acquainted from giving school performances with the Muse Machine.

“We’ve been performing in an outreach show called ‘Once Upon an Opera’ directed by Katie Pees, and this is the third of four weeks for this production,” Panara said. “We’ve already had students come up to tell us they’re coming to see Hansel and Gretel.”

Tenor Logan Rucker returns in an unusual casting as the voice of both the Sandman and Dew Fairy. His most recent appearance on stage here was as Spoletta in Tosca last fall. Additional talented singing actors round out the cast. Soprano Alexandra Loutsion, gifted with what a Pittsburgh Tribune review described as “a masterful blend of vocal acting with stylized movement,” makes her Dayton Opera debut as Gertrude, the children’s mother. Baritone Mark Baker returns to the Dayton Opera as Peter, the children’s father. He recently played Sulpice in Dayton Opera’s 2011 production of The Daughter of the Regiment.

Jeffrey Powell, who has worked with the Dayton Opera for more than 20 years, again takes the podium for this performance as conductor and chorus master. He will also direct the Kettering Children’s Choir, which, as the chorus of gingerbread children freed by Hansel and Gretel’s timely witch-immolation, will unleash their youthful vocal energy to bring this exciting production to a rousing, jubilant close.

If you haven’t thought of it already, this is a great show for introducing young people to opera. On a personal note, it was the first opera this writer ever saw. According to a reliable source (my mother), the next morning I rushed up to my kindergarten teacher and breathlessly announced, “I saw an opera by ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK!” My enthusiasm for this touching, timeless work has not faded over the intervening years, and it has made a splendid introduction to opera for countless youngsters.

Along with its strong appeal to children, Hansel and Gretel has a secure place in the hearts of opera devotees who revel in its lush and sophisticated score, which is filled with beautiful and familiar melodies unscathed by full Wagnerian treatment. Indeed, Humperdinck is quite certainly the best-loved of Wagner’s disciples, and even Wagner’s nay-sayers have nary a harsh word for Humperdinck’s highly-accessible score. If you listen closely, you may notice some of the leading motifs – signature tunes, as Anna Russell used to say – that represent various concepts and characters in the opera. Among these are references to the angels descending, children’s prayer, children’s dance, witch’s ride and Dew Fairy.

Hansel and Gretel has always been Humperdinck’s most popular work. In 1923, the Royal Opera House in London chose it for the first complete radio opera broadcast in history. Eight years later it was the first opera transmitted live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Although Humperdinck wrote many other stage works, including King’s Children and Sleeping Beauty, he never recaptured the acclaim that greeted his Hansel and Gretel.

 

Born in Germany in 1854 to a family who would have preferred he become an architect, Humperdinck produced his first composition at the age of seven. His initial attempts at works for the stage were two plays with songs – Singspiele – he composed at the age of 13. He worked with a number of notable teachers including Ferdinand Hiller and Josef Rheinberger. After winning the first Mendelssohn Scholarship he went to Italy, where he became acquainted with Richard Wagner in Naples. Wagner invited him to join him in Bayreuth, and during 1880 and 1881 Humperdinck assisted in the production of Parsifal. Curiously, to cover a scene change that took longer than expected, Humperdinck was enlisted to compose the additional necessary bars in Wagnerian style. They remain today in most productions. He also served as music tutor to Wagner’s son, Siegfried. After winning another prize, Humperdinck traveled through Italy, France and Spain, and spent two years teaching at the Gran Teatre del Liceu Conservatory in Barcelona before returning to Germany.

After securing a teaching position in Frankfurt, Humperdinck began work on Hansel and Gretel in 1890. He first composed four songs to accompany a puppet show his nieces were giving at home. At his sister’s request, he made the songs simple enough to be sung by children. Then, using a libretto by his sister rather loosely based on the Brothers Grimm version of the fairy tale, he composed a Singspiel of 16 songs with piano accompaniment and connecting dialogue. He presented this as a Christmas present to his fiancée that same year. By January 1891, Humperdinck had begun working on the orchestration.

The complete opera premiered in Weimar shortly before Christmas in 1893 with famed composer Richard Strauss on the podium. Strauss called it “a masterpiece of the highest quality […] all of it original, new and so authentically German.” With its highly original synthesis of Wagnerian techniques and traditional German folk songs, Humperdinck’s opera was a near-instant and overwhelming success, despite opening night problems that included a sprained ankle for Hansel and a slow music copyist who made omitting the overture a necessity. The overture and “Angels’ Dance” have since become popular in their own right and sometimes appear on orchestral programs without the rest of the opera.

Among the four authentic German folk tunes used in the work are “Suzy, little Suzy,” “Ral-la-la-la” (which introduces the father), “There stands a little man in the wood alone” and the horn call that opens Act III. Humperdinck did such a masterful job of keeping the folk song feel through the rest of the opera it’s difficult to tell what music is authentic German folk song and which is newly composed.

Come early for the pre-performance talk by University of Dayton Professor of Music Sam Dorf an hour before performances in the Mead Theatre. As Dorf observed, “Humperdinck’s masterpiece appeals to audiences of all ages; it capitalizes on our own memoirs of childhood fears, while providing the much needed happy ending we search for in our daily lives.” You can also enjoy pre-performance opera bites in the Wintergarden for an early start on that happy ending!

 

Dayton Opera presents Hansel and Gretel on Friday, Feb. 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center. Guest artists include Zoot Theatre, Dayton Ballet II Senior Company and members of the artists-in-residence program. For more information, including tickets please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org.

 Reach DCP freelance writer Eric Street at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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