Edmonton Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel is the company’s second show of the season, and it presents a visual feast. Barry Steele (lighting and projection designer), Camellia Koo (scenery designer), and Deanna Finnman (costume designer) teamed up to create something magical. Before the first actor has even appeared on stage—as the audience is treated to the overture by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra—Steele and Koo set the scene and given a taste of what’s to come.
The story is not substantially different from what you might have heard as a child: Hansel and Gretel live in the forest with their mother and father. The family is poor, food is scarce, and after the children misbehave, their mother sends them out into the woods. There the children find a house made of candy and a child-eating witch inside. The added bits not typically found in the fairy tale involve the children being either stalked or protected by magical beings they encounter in the woods. These scenes make for both the slowest parts of the opera, but also some of the most visually arresting.
The reveal of the Sandman (Aidan Ferguson) is one of the most engrossing scenes of the production. Every aspect—the costume, the lighting, the setting, the stage direction, and Ferguson’s performance—commands the audience’s attention. Unfortunately the scene falls in the middle of a second act that is otherwise pretty slow paced.
You can practically smell the forest floor as Hansel and Gretel meander along. The set and lighting are so well designed, but soprano Lida Szkwarek, who plays Gretel, and mezzo soprano Andrea Hill, who plays Hansel, don’t grip the audience’s attention as tightly as they should. Neither performance was bad, but neither was engaging either, and when the two sang in duet, Hill seemed to get drowned out.
Mezzo soprano Marion Newman and baritone Peter McGillivray offered some entertainment as the mother and the father, but the real treat came when tenor Robert Clark took the stage as the witch.
When Dazeinterviewed Clark before the show’s run, he described the role of the witch as “this larger than life, kind of grotesque figure [and] it’s just so much fun.” That definitely comes through in his performance. Clark embodies his role from the moment he steps on stage, and embraces every comedic opportunity the part has to offer. During “The Witch’s Ride,” Clark lurches about on the broom, and throws in a little ad lib for good measure. But the witch has relatively little time on stage, and the delight Clark brings to the stage is too short-lived.
That being said, it really is a visually beautiful production.
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