Met opera's 'Hansel' is a musical food feast

December 17, 2011 - 2:35 PM
Opera Hansel and Gretel

In this Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011 photo, Kate Lindsey, left, performs as Hansel, alongside Aleksandra Kurzak, right performing as Gretel, and Robert Brubaker, background, performing as the Witch during the final dress rehearsal of Englebert Humperdink's "Hansel and Gretel" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK (AP) — "Is the witch really dead now?" my 6-year-old seatmate, Claudia, leaned over anxiously to ask.

Hansel and Gretel had just shoved the old crone into the oven, but she could still be seen knocking on the glass door as if she expected the children to let her out.

Soon enough, however, she really was dead. And Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" had worked its spell on Claudia just as it had on the entire audience of grown-ups and children at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night.

The opening performance of this season's revival was a magical affair all around. The eccentric production by Richard Jones exerted its creepy charms; a strong cast of singers sent Humperdinck's melodies soaring, and the orchestra led by debuting conductor Robin Ticciati made the Wagnerian textures sound light and transparent.

In Jones' refreshingly kitsch-free vision, "Hansel and Gretel" is all about hunger and food. The dream pantomime features not 14 guardian angels but 14 chefs in giant white hats who prepare a sumptuous banquet for the children. The witch, decked out by costumer designer John Macfarlane in lumpy black dress and white pearls, is like a malevolent, misshapen Julia Child who whips up all manner of desserts in a frenzy and tries to force-feed them to Hansel.

Though the role was written for a mezzo-soprano, it's often taken by a tenor. Robert Brubaker sang and acted with gusto, sounding at times like Mime, the dwarf in Wagner's "Ring" cycle, a role he will sing at the Met later this season.

Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak was a sweetly lyrical Gretel with blooming high notes, though her heavily accented English made her words often unintelligible. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey was a ripe-voiced Hansel and played the role of the gangly boy to perfection. The delicate blending of their voices in the children's prayer was enchanting. Soprano Michaela Martens and baritone Dwayne Croft lent strong support as their parents.

This "Hansel" with its menacing tree people, suicidal mother and drunken father, might be a bit too dark for very young children, though its mood is more in keeping with the original Grimms' fairy tale than most productions. For everyone else, though, it's a holiday feast.