Opera Saratoga 2019 Review: Hansel and Gretel

A Marvelous Rendering Of A Classic Tale

By Matt Costello

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to experience a number of unique performance opportunities outside of the confines of opera’s mecca, Manhattan. After a glorious “La Traviata” at the Glimmerglass Festival, I headed over to Saratoga Springs for a matinee of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”

It was remarkable and greatly unexpected.

It was set in the stunning Saratoga State Park is Saratoga Opera’s home, The Spa Little Theater, and the company had – for this production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic fairy tale opera – joined forces with a group called Manual Cinema.

Not Your Everyday Rendering

Upon entering, and taking a seat, here’s what one noticed: one half the stage held the small orchestra, a near chamber-sized ensemble. Sharing the stage, there was an area to the left with what looked like a lighting desk of some kind, projecting a brilliant white light against a background.

Above this a screen, supposedly — one might imagine — for the “cinema” part of the production. Unusual for this opera, in the states at least, it was sung in German, so above all of that, there were subtitles.

And before the conductor, Geoffrey McDonald, came out to lead his forces, people on stage gathered at the table, with the bright lights being projected. They stood against the screen. Some slipped on prosthetic noses, suddenly shaping the black silhouette of their characters.

One begins to get an idea that this would  not be your average, everyday production of the delightful opera.

Once the overture began, the magic started. And I don’t exaggerate when the I use that word, magic. The Manual Cinema team, seven strong, began to manipulate painted images on plastic overpays, as well as a host of cut shapes, to create an amazingly moving visual prelude to the story of the two children, cast out into the dark and dangerous woods.

And when our Hansel and Gretel singers — playing in their cottage, dancing  happy until they break a milk jug – their Manual Cinema doppelgangers performed the dances and actions as shadows on the screen, accompanied by — for lack of a better word – plastic puppets, all making the small cottage of the broom salesman and his wife come to remarkable life.

Shadows & Light

I cannot stress how much there was to look at throughout the performance. On one hand was the orchestra, which was wonderfully animated as its players interpreted the famed score.  But then, to their left, one could see people clustered at a battery of overhead projectors. Then the performance of the shadow actors, and all of it projected onto a screen facing the audience.

Gretel was sung by Joowon Chae, with a brilliant, powerful voice, and her Hansel sung by the equally strong Nicole Thomas, their voices and actions combining with the cinema, if you will, and the puppetry, to create magical storytelling.

The shadow Hansel, played by Julia VanArsdale Miller, danced with her shadow Gretel, Sarah Fornace, with movements and freedom that transcended mere mime and the shadows. A world was created, and the creativity on display was tremendous.

The other major players were also truly immersed in their respective interpretations of the famed opera, including the richly balanced voices and acting of the father, Justin Austin, and mother Flora Wall.

But then, very early on, it all truly became whole. All those segments merged into a complete experience, multi-sensory, hitting one on many levels.

To be brief: you have to see this.

When the piece ended, the singers – all part of Opera Saratoga’s Young Artist Program – took their rightful bows, as did the Manual Cinema troupe. So did the shadows for that matter, passing in front of the light, to accept the bravos and the accompanying standing ovation.

And when I walked out of the theater for what would be a long drive home, it was as if I had been someplace equally as magic and moving as the fantastic woods and gingerbread house of the Humperdinck opera.


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