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Holiday Opera: WNO's Half-Baked 'Hansel and Gretel'

Aleksandra Romano (Hansel) and Ariana Wehr (Gretel) in Hansel and Gretel (photo by Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera)

Washington National Opera tried two new holiday operas in recent years, and both of them were disappointing flops. It seemed like a good sign that the company was returning to Engelbert Humperdinck's evergreen Hansel and Gretel this year, but it has missed the mark by sticking with the chamber ensemble reduction of the score it used in 2007 and 2012, by Kathleen Kelly (strings one on a part, horn, clarinet, flute, and piano). While I have complained about this pale imitation of Humperdinck's rather wonderful Wagner-tinged score before, the third time around was the final straw. The opera frankly sounds pretty awful without the four horns, percussive touches, and symphonic sweep of the full score, especially in the interludes, and there is certainly more room in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater pit, if perhaps not enough for the full orchestration. As heard at the second performance on Saturday night, the musicians play well, but the effect falls far short.

This time around, the voices were all fairly large in scope, which made the imbalance with the mealy-mouthed sound from the pit more evident to the ears. The title roles featured the same pairing of Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists who played Mercédès and Frasquita in this fall's Carmen, with similar results. Mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano's Hansel was more sure if a little pushy in the smaller theater, and Ariana Wehr's Gretel was absolutely adorable and with enough power, if slightly unclear at the top. Soprano Kerriann Otaño, whose voice was not quite right for the Countess in Wolf Trap's Marriage of Figaro last summer, here made a delightfully poisonous, overbearing witch, with a cackle that terrified Miss Ionarts. Impressive mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman was a viperous Mother, with Aleksey Bogdanov's happily tipsy Father lightening the mood. Soprano Melissa Mino was appropriately flowery of tone as the iridescently costumed Dew Fairy, while Raquel González's Sandman was the only voice occasionally eclipsed by the small instrumental consort.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO fires up ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ in a polished but uninviting performance (Washington Post, December 14)
The opera remains an easy sell for kids, especially in this kind of lollipop-flavored staging, with off-kilter sets that are cartoonish and fun (designed by Robin Vest) and equally multi-colored costumes (Timm Burrow). Sarah Meyers directs this time around, with a different spin but similar feel to how David Gately did it last time. The supernumerary animals that menace the children in the forest -- a wolf, boar, vulture, all rebuffed by a protecting owl -- were a particular treat, as was the sound of the WNO Children's Chorus. While there is none of the disturbing imagery aimed more at adults seen in the productions from Virginia Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, for example, there was still enough menace in this version to keep Miss Ionarts on the edge of her seat.

This production is repeated on December 18, 19, and 20, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. In a praiseworthy move, WNO is offering the 2 pm performance on December 19 as a sensory-friendly event, for families with children on the autism spectrum or with other sensory sensitivities. This is a most welcome development for families of special-needs kids, a community that includes Ionarts Central.

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