Hocus pocus. The Los Angeles Music Center Opera’s presentation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 fairy tale opera, “Hansel and Gretel,” which opened Friday for a six performance run (through June 21) at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, proves to be a bewitching experience for young and old alike. It’s big, bright and thoroughly appealing.
The elaborate, visually exciting production, originally conceived for Dallas Opera by Michael Yeargan and Peter J. Hall, features a witch that flies, a monumental gingerbread house, a dark mysterious forest that moves magically on its own, and a shimmering stairway to heaven, replete with a chorus of glittering gilded angels.
The cast includes two youthfully buoyant singers in the title roles: Paula Rasmussen as Hansel, and Karen Beardsley as Gretel; a comically evil witch, two crotchety parents, a Dew Fairy and a monkish Sandman. Rasmussen and Beardsley, (who will alternate in the performances with Stephanie Vlahos and Dale Franzen) are captivating as the wayward youngsters sent into the woods to gather berries.
Both singers perform with an abundance of energy and charm, while singing their duets, particularly “The Evening Prayer,” in a style that often shimmers. Beardsley, who recently appeared in LAMCO’s production of “Albert Herring,” is particularly enjoyable. Her precocious nature, stylish singing, excellent diction, and humorous antics, make her a Gretel to remember.
The decision to cast a character-tenor (Ragnar Ulfung) as the Witch, instead of the traditional mezzo-soprano, had mixed results. It gives the role simultaneously a comic and a darker quality, but, sacrifices the lyrical fluidity a mezzo can bring to the part. From an acting point of view, Ulfung is clearly relishing his first attempt at the role. Humperdinck’s Wagnerian-scaled orchestration, with its rich chromaticism and folk-style motifs, was deftly interpreted by British conductor Andrew Litton. His guidance of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra produced one of their finest performances of the season.
“Hansel and Gretel” provides an ideal opportunity for parents to introduce their children to the world of opera, and judging from the many young, beaming faces in the audience on opening night, many families (despite the $ 60 top ticket) did just that. The stage action, designed by director John Copley, and the English translation by Norman Kelley help to draw the younger audience members into the action. Even so, less than perfect diction from most of the singers rendered many lines unintelligible.
Projected “super-titles” were also promised. Unfortunately, on opening night, moments before the curtain was scheduled to go up, a malfunction in the projection system canceled their use completely. They should be functioning for the upcoming performances.