Hansel and Gretel” is, more often than not, casually tossed into the backwater category of “children’s opera.” But Los Angeles Opera, currently in the process of divesting itself of most of the trappings of “routine,” gave this semi-Wagnerian 1893 treatment of a Brothers Grimm fairytale a rollout more fitting for a prestigious cornerstone of the repertoire. It corralled Alan Gilbert, one of the fastest risers of a new generation of American conductors, for his L.A. Opera debut. It got Douglas Fitch, fresh off an attention-grabbing triple-bill of Hindemith, Stravinsky and Carter at Tanglewood this past summer, to direct and design. And it gave adults in the audience something to chew on besides gingerbread cookies.
A stage director can take “Hansel and Gretel” pretty far into the realm of fantasy without straying from the spirit of the opera, and Fitch had no trouble fitting those parameters. His forest and cabin sets looked like children’s pop-up books, where straw chairs and tables suddenly start swaying and dancing to one of Humperdinck’s folk-like children’s tunes. His gingerbread house was right out of Central Casting, framed by a gigantic lollipop whose stem also served as a firepole to slide down.
Fitch populated his forest a la Maurice Sendak with endearing, gentle, hybrid creatures with big soulfully illuminated eyes. He followed Humperdinck’s musical lead in the aftermath of act one’s closing “Evening Prayer,” staging it simply yet magically as his friendly animals (instead of angels) wandered around the sleeping children before the night sky.
Fitch had the most multilevel fun with the role of the Witch. Usually, the part is entrusted to a star mezzo-soprano out for a campy lark, but Fitch instead cast a tenor, Graham Clark, hilariously clad in a pink tutu. This was a great in-joke for Wagnerians, for Clark gave L.A. Opera audiences a preview of his Mime in the 2009-10 Wagner “Ring” cycle here; his oily Witch sounded like Mime right down to the witch’s cackle. It also was a delectable confrontation of cross-dressing opera characters, where a man portraying a woman (the Witch) confronts a woman portraying a boy (Hansel). Ah, intrigue!
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer (Hansel) and soprano Maria Kanyova (Gretel) convincingly tumbled about as children, with Schaufer pointing out the words of Richard Sparks’ compulsively rhyming English libretto with particular clarity. As their Mother, Luana DeVol made her first appearance via a frightening video projection — scarier than any Witch — and hideously amplified voice, but soon she and their Father (sturdy-voiced baritone Donnie Ray Albert) were allowed to bemoan their poverty-stricken state rather poignantly.
Thankfully, the gifted Gilbert brought out Humperdinck’s symphonic intricacies in the pit, pointing out details, raising gentle yet powerful climaxes, carefully shaping every phrase from the opening notes of the Prelude onward. Given the superb response he got from the orchestra, L.A. Opera should get him back for another production pronto.