Angels oust bakers at CPCC

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I didn’t quite drag my wife to the CPCC Opera Theatre production of Hansel and Gretel last weekend, but after our experience last season with the new Metropolitan Opera version, I can tell you that Sue was less than eager for second helpings. But guess what? Sue and I enjoyed the CPCC version far more than the Met’s! All of which emboldens me to make this modest suggestion to Met general manager Peter Gelb and his Eurotrash set and costume designer John Macfarlane: maybe composer Engelbert Humperdinck and librettist Adelheid Wette actually knew what they were doing when they collaborated on the original opera.

The CPCC version presented the siblings and their parents living in a country cottage instead of a city tenement. Instead of spending the night in an abandoned Elks Lodge hall, CP set designer Julie Landman had the notion that Hansel and Gretel were lost in the nearby woods. A little more like the Hansel and Gretel you grew up with, I’d presume – and a little more like protagonists you would expect to introduce your own children to. And when Hansel and Gretel lay down to sleep, alone and away from home, 14 angels – preciously choreographed by Kathryn Horne – guarded their sleep instead of the 14 Sunshine Hi-Ho bakers the Met conjured up.

Angel costumes rented for the CPCC effort had a gossamer rainbow gleam akin to the fairies we associate with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and technical director Don Ketchem even managed to fly three of the sprites as the Act 1 curtain was coming down. Aside from the authenticity scorned by the Met, color and nature were the key elements restored to the opera from start to finish by stage director Rebecca Cook-Carter, along with a liberal sprinkling of children performing onstage before and after intermission.

Jenny Chen sang sweetly, if not powerfully, as Gretel, stamping the heroine with a Disney wholesomeness, while Daidree Tofano compared even more favorably to her Met counterpart as Hansel, never overdoing the boyishness shtick. Navigating a rather dreary vocal role, Amy Lefler was a stern Mother, dramatically executing the key spilt milk episode. Brian Jeddeloh arrived as Dad somewhat later, his cheer perhaps lubricated by ethanol, but outfitted with a catchy little tune that he sang well. Of the two presiding spirits, Karen Erbe as the Sandman and Krista Wilhelmsen as the Dew Fairy, Wilhelmsen made the deeper impression, perhaps because of her outré space-cadet costume.

Wearing a green prosthetic that took the role in a Freddy Krueger direction, Dale Bryant emphasized the horror and menace of the Witch as much as the bumbling comedy. Productions of Hansel and Gretel can hit a brick wall when we finally encounter Her Wickedness – with Bryant’s vocally rich rambunctiousness, it was all gingerbread.

Unlike the CPCC Opera productions early in the Loaf Era, the orchestra pit was filled to near-capacity, 21 musicians strong, led by David Tang with his customary sharpness and energy. If anything, Landman’s enchanted candyland design was even more impressive than her bosky woods. But Ketchem hilariously overreached himself at the start of Act 2, flying a bunch of feathery birds to wake the siblings up where the angels had lulled them to sleep. At best, they looked like monstrous fly lures jiggling at the end of a fisherman’s line, but on Saturday night, two of the fluttering birds plopped down to earth while Gretel was joyously greeting them. Unperturbed, Chen sang to one of the carcasses as if it were the cutest little thing ever. Tofano as Hansel took a more practical approach, discreetly sliding one of the corpses behind a tree stump.

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