The New England Conservatory Opera Theater presented an abbreviated English production of Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel the weekend of December 4, 5 and 6 at the Cutler Majestic Theater. At the opening night performance I attended, Nicole Rodin sang Hänsel, Kimberley Soby (Gretel), Morgan Strickland (the mother Gertrude), Jean Bernard Cerin (the father Peter), and Oriana Dunlop (the witch, here named Rosina Sugarface). Rounding out the cast were Jaime Korkos as the Sandman and Megan Stapleton as the Dew Fairy. Guest conductor Christopher Larkin led the NEC Opera Orchestra.
From the quiet opening bars of the overture the listener knew that he or she, many of them children, was in the presence of a magic opera. This beautiful melody is heard here and there in the opera, a leitmotif technique that Humperdinck learned from Richard Wagner, whom he accompanied to Bayreuth in the 1880s. Then we hear from the children singing the German folk song “Suse liebe Suse,” one of two in the opera. The mezzo soprano and soprano voices blended well.
Most people are familiar with the story from the Grimm brothers’ collection, but the tale is less terrifying and more magical in the libretto prepared by Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette. When the Dew Fairy wakens Gretel in Act II, the children are astonished to see what appears to be a mid-western carnival house. This is the home of Rosina Sugarface, the witch. The tradition of adapting this opera is a long-standing one since its premiere in Weimar in 1893. Here the nod to middle America, and its cornfields, is appropriate in the translation and adaptation by Tom Hammond. (In 1954, the great Anna Russell provided the voice of the witch Rosina Rubylips in a hard-to-find animated film version.) Here the mezzo soprano Dunlop came across as a slightly scary Annie Oakley.
There were many felicities in Patricia-Maria Weinmann’s direction. The transmogrification of crows into protective angels at the end of Act I was one. Another was at the end, when the witch exploded in the oven, releasing many children from their bondage. When Peter and Gertrude discover their children safe, the ensemble sang the opening Evening Prayer music, demonstrating the choral strengths of these gifted students.