Houston ìrescuesî Hansel and Gretel

Humperdinck’s siblings have been turned into depraved teen-agers,
wayward members of a sorely dysfunctional family, sometimes headed by an
alcoholic father and a shrew-like mother. And drag-queen witches on
motorcycles have brought lip-smacking realism to hints of cannibalism in the
story, thus outdoing the fairy-tale original in grotesque ghoulishness.

In a holiday production the Houston Grand Opera has taken a happily
refreshing “less-is-more” approach to Humperdinck’s one
great hit, enhancing the appeal of the work to both children and adults. To
achieve this Anthony Freud — in his first season as HGO general
director and CEO — paired the talent of puppeteer Basil Twist with the
acumen of newly appointed head of the HGO music staff Kathleen Kelly, who
reorchestrated this score for chamber ensemble.

For almost a decade Twist, a third-generation puppeteer, has focused his
career on music. His 1998 underwater visualization of Berlioz’”
Symphonie fantastique” won both an Obie Award and a Drama Desk
nomination. Two years later he staged Stravinsky’s ballet
“Petrushka” with puppets and then directed two operas written
specifically for puppets: de Falla’s “Master Peter’s Puppet
Show” and Respighi’s “Sleeping Beauty in the

In Houston Twist, doubling as designer and director, has combined humans
and puppets on stage simultaneously for the first time. For the production
Twist engaged eight professional puppeteers who — invisible to the
audience — work both above and below the stage. In addition, from
Japan’s Bunraku theater he has added black-clad assistants who bring
puppets on stage.

Most impressive, however, is the illusion that he has created in the size
of the singers involved. As the opera opens Hansel and Gretel seem truly
child-size as they move among mammoth pieces of furniture. And the parents,
when they appear, enforce this impression. With enlarged heads and walking on
stilts, they recall “tricks” often used to make Wagner’s
“Rheingold” giants Fafner and Fasolt larger than life.

Twist has outdone even himself with a femme fatale Witch, a 12-foot
swivel-hipped diva in flaming red directly from the grandest of operas. To execute Twist’s design for the figure, Houston’s Jm Jensen Company mounted baritone Liam Bonner on a vintage rolling camera pedestal
that is moved around the stage with fluidity and speed by two men beneath the
Witch’ skirts. A third is responsible for the figure’s body
movements, while Bonner sweeps the air with long-fingered hands and arms that
extend from his own.

Twist calls the Witch “an extended opera singer,” whom he
finds “pretty cool.”Her physical stature, he notes, reflects her
power. And while the Witch, sung by Bonner without affectation, might scare
the daylights out of kids, for the audience she speaks more of fun than fear,
an impression enforced by an ornately colorful house built of gingerbread
from a batter obviously rich in Russian Easter eggs.

Other impressive “twists” of the staging include 14 diaphanous
angels — puppets all — who dance an aerial ballet above the
sleeping children after their “Prayer” and the addition to the
cast of an entourage of gingerbread people recruited from HGO
Children’s Chorus. Following the demise of the Witch they shed their
costumes to be real boys and girls, now liberated from captivity. (Karen
Reeves rehearsed the children.)

Twist shares the success of the production with Kelly, whose reduction of
Humperdinck’s Wagnerian orchestra to an ensemble of a mere eight
— string quartet, horn, flute, clarinet and piano — gives the
opera a whole new lease on life.Kelly undertook this task — independent
of the HGO — for the Berkshire Opera, where she premiered the new
version last summer in several Massachuset communities with small venues.
(One theater was without a pit, making itnecessary for the instrumentalists
to share the stage with the singers.)

As a chamber opera “Hansel and Gretel” is a kinder and gentler
work than the original as it is often encountered today. “The score is
lush,” Kelly says, “but its bone structure is clear and
clean.” And it is the strength of these qualities that bring to the HGO
staging a feeling of rebirth and rediscovery that make “Hansel and
Gretel” a masterpiece of classic restraint.

In this lean environment the German children’s songs that
Humperdinck built into the score retain their authenticity, and the
transparency of the reduced orchestration brings to the surface a charm often
obscured by the forces of the original version.

“The music at the heart of any work is greater than the forces that
create the sound,” Kelly comments. “Hansel and Gretel” is
sung here in Cori Ellison’s delightfully unmannered and infinitely
singable English translation of the libretto, which includes such lines as
these sung by the Witch:

“I plan to set his heart aflutter
With Belgian waffles and cinnamon butter.”

The production, seen at the opening-night performance on December 1and
slated for 10 further December performances in the Cullen Theater in
Houston’s Wortham Center, is in its entirety a product of the HGO
Studio, the company’s highly regarded training program for young
artists, which Kelly serves as music director.

A delightfully boyish Fiona Murphy and a convincingly adolescent Rebecca
Camm sang the title roles on opening night; they alternate with Maria Markina
and Alicia Gianni in later performances. Jennifer Root and Ryan McKinny are
the parents, while Russian-born Albina Shagimuratova, a first-year Studio
artist, makes her HGO debut, doubling as Sandman and Dew Fairy.

Regarding her collaboration with Twist, Kelly points first to the number
of Baroque operas written for puppets — again, small venues prompted
the practice — and to the favor that transcriptions and arrangements
enjoyed before the age of recorded sound. “And it’s ideal for
younger singers — artists still in their 20s or early 30s,” she
says. Kelly conducted the overwhelmingly charming and convincing staging.

It is perhaps surprising that Anthony Freud chose “‘Hansel and
Gretel” rather than “Turandot” or
“Meistersinger” for his first new production in Houston.
“It’s been interesting for me to look at a favorite opera with
new eyes,” says Freud, speaking of his choice of Twist for the staging.
“Basil has never directed humans before, and the combination of puppets
and real people has been a fresh challenge for him.” Freud points to
plans for projects designed specifically for the 1100-seat Culllen, less than
half the size of the Brown Theater, the 2200-seat venue for HGO major
productions. “And the talent of our Studio makes such projects doubly
appealing, for they are of benefit both to the training program and to the
company as a whole,”Freud says.

This “Hansel and Gretel,” a co-production of the Houston Grand
Opera and Atlanta Opera, rescues the opera from the over-the-top productions
that have become a modern tradition. It gives the score a new lease on

Wes Blomster

image_description=Hansel and Gretel (HGO)