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TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE: Lyric Opera fills fairy-tale classic with clowns, Hollywood idols, gingerbread

By Paul Horsley

Updated versions of well-known operas work best when they remain true to their concept from beginning to end. Director Doug Varone’s version of Hansel and Gretel is set in Depression-Era New York, and that’s fine: The 19th-century rural poverty of Humperdinck’s story translates relatively easily into urban poverty in the 1930s. Instead of a house of sweets, here the kids yearn for Hollywood stardom. But the production, which opened the Lyric Opera’s season on September 17th, also throws in a circus and a scary clown, in addition to elements of the original story (such as children who have been turned into gingerbread), and the end result nearly collapses under the weight of its own mixed metaphors.

Conceptually, anyway. Fortunately the production, with sets and costumes by David Zinn, brings winning vocal performances into the mix, and if you don’t overthink the lack of consistency you and the kids might have a fun evening. Gretel and her brother live in a tenement on the Lower East Side, and at the outset we see the girl seated in the apartment window dwarfed by a huge advertisement for a Fred-and-Ginger movie painted on the side of their building. Outside, children play a bit too cheerfully for such dark times, and Doug Varone and Dancers (embedded in the group as circus personnel) bring deft balletic touches—with graceful leaps and turns that at times make us feel we’re inside a Broadway dance number.

Megan Marino (Hansel), Victoria Livengood (The Witch) and Rachele Gilmore (Gretel), photo by Cory Weaver
Megan Marino is Hansel, Victoria Livengood is the Candy Lady/Witch/Clown and Rachele Gilmore is Gretel / All photos by Cory Weaver

Megan Marino (Hansel) is dressed to look uncannily like a boy, and her jumps and twitches (conveying the lad’s hyperactive angst) are met by a mezzo-soprano voice of solidity and sweetness. Rachele Gilmore (Gretel), who looks a bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, sings with directness and clarity. Troy Cook brings his deliciously burnished baritone to the role of the Father, who is sadly onstage all too briefly.

Victoria Livengood has the intriguing task of singing both the role of Gertrude (the Mother), and the Witch (a.k.a. Candy Lady or “the crazy clown that thinks she’s a witch,” as the German text is retranslated into the English titles), a casting choice that raises perhaps the very psychoanalytic issues that fairy-tales have historically addressed. With outstanding vocal and dramatic charisma she walks a line between comic and threatening, making the Mother seem unusually mean while the hilariously costumed Candy Lady is as much a source of mirth as of menace.

Children's Chorus and Dancers (Doug Varone and Dancers), photo by Cory Weaver
The Children’s Chorus is joined by Doug Varone and Dancers, in the Lyric Opera’s ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ a production that originated at Minnesota Opera in 2014

Laurel Weir brought comedic spice to the Sandman, dressed in a Liberace-like white tuxedo, and April Martin sang the Dew Fairy’s song with wit and a crisp, gorgeously shaped soprano. The Lyric Children’s Chorus sang and acted with gregarious energy, and conductor John Keenan led the Kansas City Symphony in a firm, brisk rendering of Humperdinck’s beautifully scored 1893 opera—a memorable if not profound piece filled with approachable tunes and rich orchestral textures.

The main problem with updating this opera is that both its libretto (by the composer’s sister) and its musical fabric are fundamentally rooted in German folk tradition. When we see Fred and Ginger and Shirley Temple dancing soft-shoe to folk songs and even tunes that sound like Lutheran chorales, the concept turns a bit blurry. And when Shirley tap-dances out to present Hansel and Gretel with Oscars, we suddenly realize that one way to carry through with this update would be to make it solely about Hollywood, and dispense with the clowns altogether. (The Witch becomes a ruthless Hollywood producer who uses child stars then tosses them away, Mother Gertrude is a domineering Stage Mom, and the gingerbread children are child-star rejects turned drug-addled young adults.) Nevertheless it is possible simply to enjoy this show for the mad romp that it is, and though it is not technically a “kid’s opera” it can be appreciated by audiences of all ages.

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Hansel and Gretel runs through September 25th at the Kauffman Center. Call 816-471-7344 or go to kcopera.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

 

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