If ever an opera deserved the epithet success-proof, surely Engelbert Humperdinck’s ponderous, mud-and-sugar retelling of “Hansel und Gretel,” the sweet Brothers Grimm fable of virtue triumphant and evil oven-roasted belongs near the top of the list. Pretty as its tunes are and capable as most of its cast is, the Los Angeles Opera’s current “Hansel,” now in its second go-around, can most charitably be reckoned as a mess.
The problem starts with the work itself. Any American child and most American operagoers know the story too well to put up with the libretto’s ponderous German, yet Humperdinck’s music — its orchestration and its harmonies carved in large chunks out of any Wagner you care to name — is so Germanic in accent that it sits heavily on any attempt at translation.
Director James Robinson’s version, originally presented at the New York City Opera, traipses around the problem by setting the sung dialogue in English and the familiar tunes in German. He has moved the action to 1890s New York; rather than picking strawberries in the woods, his kids hustle food from a peddler’s cart. They sack out in Central Park, where their many-more-than-14 angels wander by, like the guests at one of Gatsby’s garden parties. There’s lots of nice snowfall, plenty of New York atmosphere, and a Witch-sized oven that Julia Child might envy. The Witch’s gingerbread house, presided over by the appropriately horrendous Judith Christin, bears a striking resemblance to the legendary Dakota Apartments.
The company further fudges the language question by naming the work “Hansel & Gretel,” allowing the ampersand to stand in for either “and” or “und.” The real problem, however, lies deeper; the diction of most cast members — Paula Rasmussen’s sturdy Hansel excepted — is so fuzzy that it’s not easy to tell when one language leaves off and the other begins. That, however, is one of the opera’s built-in pitfalls: an opera written for light-voiced characters, but blanketing their noble efforts in an orchestra that might easily outshout a Brunnhilde. The chorus of unroasted children at the end was virtually inaudible, the fault again far more of Humperdinck’s thick orchestral padding than of William Vendice’s considerate, well-paced conducting.