Saturday, May 15, 2004

'Hansel' overcomes hip conceit

Opera review

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hansel and Gretel are spoiled brats who go digging in dumpsters. Dad urinates in the garden and a hip Sandman shares his weed with the kids - and that's just Act I of the fractured fairy tale opera that opened Thursday night at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Staged by Thomas de Mallet Burgess, the updated production of the 19th-century opera Hansel and Gretel was clever, entertaining and well performed - but it tried too hard to be hip. The in-your-face, present-day concept, in a setting very much like Over-the-Rhine, unfolded like a TV drama. It distracted from Engelbert Humperdinck's glorious music, and clashed with the poetic nature of this well-known fairy tale opera.

Admittedly, some elements were fantastic touches. The 14 angels who surrounded the sleeping children were winged firemen, who descended from a fire-escape ladder - a clear reference to the fallen firefighters of 9-11.

And the spectacular Witch's Ride, with the witch slashing the air with two meat cleavers, would scare anybody.

But then, the boom box-toting Sandman (Maribeth McCullouch) took a drag of his joint, and the audience laughed - ruining one of the most beautiful moments in all of German opera: the "Evening Prayer." The children were awakened from their sleep by a sassy UPS delivery girl - the Dew Fairy (Tina Milhorn).

For most in Corbett Auditorium's audience of 334, it was hard to hear the "updated" text (sung in English, without surtitles), except for occasional snippets, such as, "Go away, you freak!" (Hansel to Witch) and "What the hell do you think you're doing?" (Mom to kids).

The opera opened on a dowdy, all-gray urban home, where a bickering Hansel (Elizabeth Pojanowski) and Gretel (Audrey Luna) were trashing the living room. As preteens (instead of small children) the two captured their characters perfectly, she dressed a la Britney wannabe; he with Eminem-style cap and skateboard. Their "Evening Prayer," sung in their cardboard box shelter, lost in the "urban forest," was a poignant high point.

The most impressive voice belonged to Joshua Benjamin Jeremiah, a believably drunken Dad, as he lewdly rubbed up against Mom. Singing dual roles of the Mother and the Witch, Faith Sherman was a standout. Her scene removing her plaid suit to reveal a bloody butcher's apron and knives, was right out of a slasher movie.

Paul Shortt's sets were ingenious, from the inner city squalor of the urban forest, with steam rising from a grate and Hansel hunting for berries in a dumpster, to the surreal gingerbread house - a luxury home in a posh suburb. The barbecue-size oven exploded loudly, and the gingerbread children (members of CCM's Cincinnati Children's Choir) yelped ecstatically as they leaped to freedom.

Mark Gibson's orchestra was a joy to hear. The strings glowed, and Gibson inspired rich, opulent textures and wonderfully detailed playing.

In the end, good triumphed over evil - and the TV cameras got the story in time for the evening news.

The opera repeats at 2:30 p.m. today. Tickets: 556-4183.


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