Opera Manhattan’s Hansel and Gretel – Review

Photos by Cal RhodesNew York, NY – The time has come when opera companies and orchestras alike take out their scores of The Messiah and Hansel and Gretel, barely tinged with dust since their last use but twelve months ago. Holiday Season 2011 in New York City offers at least three concurrent productions of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel: the kid-and-adult friendly production at the Metropolitan Opera, starring Alice Coote in her final boogie as Hansel, and two abridged, youth-oriented productions at Amore Opera and Opera Manhattan. The latter, presented in Theater Row’s Acorn Theater, is a cute, often clumsy, but always whimsical production that features a wide-range of singers from the most amateur to the exhilarating.

Opera Manhattan’s Hansel and Gretel is for the kids, and that’s all right by me! The day after Christmas the 199-seat theater was nearly to capacity with children of all ages. The intimate venue was ideal for an introduction to opera’s timeless purpose: storytelling. Given the modest size of the company, Beth Greenberg’s production was minimal. Frosted evergreens gave the stage texture, atmosphere and angles while projections behind the actors helped to set the scene without distracting from the singing. Most affective was the use of alternating sides of the outside and inside of an iron oven. Most bizarre, though cute, were the slides of various babies in repose during Hansel and Gretel’s prayer including slumbering hippopotamuses.

Photos by Cal RhodesThe greatest part of the production was the involvement of the children in the audience. Three children were chosen to stand on stage as the gingerbread walls of the Witch’s house. At the very end of the performance, the Witch was magically resurrected from her wood-fired sepulcher, and pelted with snowballs from the audience, provided by the Dew Fairy. This was a great way to get the kids involved, but how did the Witch get out of the oven? Why was she being dragged around by the Dew Fairy? These are, of course, questions that adults asked, and I’m sure that only the most precocious children were only momentarily confused.

Erika Hennings and Maryam Amatullah-Wali were well-paired vocally as Hansel and Gretel, mixing Hennings’ buoyant and fresh lyric mezzo with Amatullah-Wali’s complementary light silver tones. They both ably inhabited the bodies of the young protagonists.

The brief role of Gertrude, the mother, was a little too low for Rebecca Hicks and her diction was not as confident as the rest of the cast, but she was still able to instill in the mother genuine pathos and tenderness. Her partner, Nathan Furhman, sang Peter, Hansel and Gretel’s father, with  a ringing and clear, if sometimes unsupported, baritone.

Photos by Cal RhodesThe stand-out performance of the evening was countertenor Nicholas Tamagna’s Witch. To call Tamagna just a countertenor does not do justice to his supple and pliant voice; he has the notes, agility, and pristine intonation of a Golden Age coloratura. Of all the evening’s singers, he moved with the most intention, purpose, and sense of character. Bedecked in a long, stringy blonde wig, and a zingara-esque skirt and wrap, crowned with a heavily stated beard and mustache, Tamagna was as Shakespearean and gender queer as Humperdinck’s Witch has ever been. The Witch is never a sympathetic character, but Tamagna was simply repulsive, and that’s a good thing!

Endless accolades and applause are due to Wilson Southerland who led the performance from the piano with authority and a sensitive, flexible ear.

Photos by Cal Rhodes

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