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Hansel and Gretel

Master Ionarts in front of the curtain of the Lincoln Theater (December 8, 2007)
Perhaps because Hansel and Gretel was premiered on December 23, 1893, Engelbert Humperdinck's opera has been a traditional family opera in the Christmas season for much of its history. This past weekend at the Lincoln Theater, the Washington National Opera attempted to recreate such a holiday tradition in Washington, with what it hopes will become an annual family opera presentation. It did so with a musically satisfying and charmingly staged production featuring some of the company's seasoned young singers presented in recent years on stage through its Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program.

The two spirited leads in Saturday evening's performance -- mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler (Hansel) and soprano Amanda Pabyan (Gretel) -- are to be commended for singing the roles to their full capacity of color and expansive sound. Both singers, both recent alumnae of the Domingo-Cafritz program, assisted by the quirky and transforming costumes of Timm Burrow, also acted commendably with childlike verve and wonder. Baritone Trevor Scheunemann was a tipsy and crackpot Father, putting his resonant voice to comic effect on the role's famous tra-la-las (his was the favorite performance of Master Ionarts).

Leslie Mutchler (Hansel) and Amanda Pabyan (Gretel), Hansel and Gretel, Washington National Opera, 2007, photo by Karin Cooper
Leslie Mutchler (Hansel) and Amanda Pabyan (Gretel), Hansel and Gretel, Washington National Opera, 2007, photo by Karin Cooper
Soprano JiYoung Lee was a shimmering Dew Fairy and silvery Sandman, albeit with humorous English pronunciation at times. A singer we have admired before, current program member Magdalena Wór, not only was a scary and funny witch but also pulled double duty, covering for the indisposed Aundi Marie Moore (who acted the role on stage) by singing the Mother's part from the orchestra pit. It may have left her somewhat strained by the end, but Wór is a singer to watch because of her luscious voice and commanding stage presence.

The production (directy by David Gately, with sets by Robin Vest), while cost-effectively plain at times, was colorful and occasionally surreal. Master Ionarts was most impressed by the second act in the forest, especially the costumes of the animals who gather around the sleeping children. The beautiful gingerbread witch's house in the third act, combined with the gravity-defying wig and false hooked chin and nose of Wór's witch, were initially very scary. After briefly trying to hide behind his chair (at the first intermission, we moved up to the empty box on the left side of the orchestra level), Master Ionarts was soon so bewitched by the visual and musical appeal that he uncovered his eyes.

Other Reviews:

T. L. Ponick, 'Hansel' a tuneful first opera to see (Washington Times, December 8)

Ronni Reich, 'Hansel and Gretel' for the Holidays (Washington Post, December 10)
We both loved the echo in the forest, sung by the fourteen voices of the Children's Chorus (many of them students at Stuart-Hobson Middle School). Conductor Steven Gathman led a tuneful and well-scaled performance from his chamber-sized ensemble in the small pit (four strings, flute, clarinet, horn, and piano). While the violins occasionally had to strain ever so slightly, the musicians gave a convincing rendition of this truly lovely score. Once again, Washington National Opera is proudly committed to fostering the next generation of opera patrons. Long may the Hansel and Gretel tradition continue.

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