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PORTOpera's Glorious Hansel & Gretel

By Paul Padillo

In the world of opera Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” stands pretty much by itself as a tale that can reach, teach, inspire and be understood by everyone from innocent children to grown ups who have seen it all. Sadly, most opera companies relegate it to the Christmas holiday season promoting it chiefly as a family event, so when PORTOpera announced its production - to take place in smack dab in the middle of summer - it was news worthy of rejoicing.

Hansel & Gretel OperaHumperdinck’s score was in the capable hands of Israel Gursky who got things off to a glorious beginning with a gleaming reading of the overture that had Wagnerian breadth and allowed the music to soar and, well, do it’s job. Throughout the evening Gursky struck an ideal balance never allowing the orchestra to cover the singers at any point, yet permitting the house to swell with sound at every climax. The band has rarely sounded better than they have here.

The curtain rose on Charles S. Kading’s s fanciful set, placing us deep in the forest, with a vista of stone mountains rising high in the background, two stairways “carved” into the stone and surrounding the stage. A center stage turntable handled most of the locale changes from humble peasant cottage, to the restful oasis in the woods, to the fanciful gingerbread where the children’s fate takes its turn.

General Director Dona D. Vaughn’s production earned major points in presenting the story not only as fairytale but as a timeless allegorical tale hitting on uncomfortable issues like alcohol abuse, desperation, hunger, homelessness, child abuse, heroism and the restorative power of love and family. While the story was indeed told sweetly, this was also theatre of a powerful and positive nature.

Childrens Chorus at PORTopera's Hansel & Gretel

Vaughn provided plenty of coupes d’theatre that provoked laughter, tears and spontaneous applause, such as when the Witch flies high above the stage on her broom, disappearing into the clouds or the genuinely creepy tree roots that slid in from either side of the forest. The Prayer and Dream Pantomime has, in my experience, rarely been more breathtakingly staged. Our duo now fast asleep, dancers from the Portland School of Ballet, attired in jewel toned costumes with transparent “wings” appeared atop the mountains and, en pointe, descend to the forest floor, surrounding the children in a moving ballet. As they spun around the transparent wings revealed a beautiful butterfly pattern as their fluttering arms protected the children. The effect was one of breathtaking beauty and brought down the house.

Similarly, upon the children’s rescue, Vaughn created a moment that made one smile through tears. Once transformed back to life, the Gingerbread Children were revealed to be a choir of local immigrant children, each attired in his or her native costume. This could have been merely a nice gimmick, but combined with the stunning sound of their vocalism it brought the evening to a hauntingly beautiful and profoundly moving conclusion.

As Hansel, mezzo soprano Heather Johnson had the “boyishness” business down to a tee as he clumsily attempted to match his graceful sister in dance steps. Johnson’s Hansel seemed a bit harder, tougher and less trustful than his sister, which leant an air of darkness about him. A quick glance of the forest as he gives up his coat to cover and protect his sleeping sister was just one of those perfect little touches that help elevate every moment of a special production.

Angela Mortellaro created a simply delicious and adorable Gretel, revealing a soprano of sweetness, but that could open up thrillingly and dominate the ensembles with clarity and precision as well as beauty.

Peter (the father) was Weston Hurt, whose house filling baritone and slightly tipsy demeanor leant a heartiness to his performance that made it impossible not to like him instantly.

In my opinion, simply adding the name Maria Zifchack to a production increases its value tenfold. One of the most glorious voices of our time it was a case of welcome luxury casting to have Zifchack as Gertrude (The Mother). While Gertrude’s actions are what sets off the darkness of the story, one couldn’t help but feel her hopeless desperation as well as her horror and regret. Zifchack and Hurt each helped ground the story with a bit of realism that truly benefited the telling of this tale.

Luxury casting, too was Robert Brubaker as The (green faced) Witch. Allowing the camp factor to kick in, Brubaker’s “old lady voice” would, at key moments, give way to his powerful tenor that made the creepy crone both a bit more comical as well as more menacing than usual. He also earned points by climbing aboard that broom and actually flying high above the stage!

In their brief roles as Sandman and Dew Fairy, Rachel Hauge and Emily Murdock made the most of their assignments each earning major audience approval with their depictions.

Sung in English, the projected titles proved unnecessary (and sometimes a distraction from the stage) as I do not believe I have ever heard an entire cast deliver English in such crisp and immediately understandable English. Every word was clear and sure (this was a much discussed intermission topic as I roamed the lobbies). While I’m an “original language” kinda guy, a strong case can be made for having your audience understand every word, and such a case was here indeed, strongly made.

Who would have thought so innocuous a work as Hansel and Gretel could give us the perfect example of Wagner’s ideal gesamtkunstwerk? Dona D. Vaughn and PORTOpera, that’s who! A remarkable evening capped off what had to be one of the most prolonged ovations in the company’s history. After last season’s cancelled production (replaced by a wonderful gala concert) it was heartening to see the Company bounce back on such sure footing and grand scale. Bravo a tutti!

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