There’s nothing like a little opera about a couple of starving kids to get you in the holiday mood. Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is hardly a little opera and there’s nothing small-minded about Houston Grand Opera’s recent production. Grimm retold the story based on a medieval Italian folk tale. Apparently, kids were actually starving then. Funny how they still are.
Enough politics; let’s move to the show and this is no ordinary one, with puppeteer Basil Twist pulling the strings. Twist concocts flying vultures, floating fairies, a mechanical cat, and one witch to die-for. With a hair-do borrowed from Cruella de Ville and Whoopi Goldberg, a body from Pamela Anderson, make-up from Tammie Faye Baker, and a street-walkers sashay, you might say she’s a sight to behold and reason enough to show up. There’s more, a forest that never seems to stay in the same place and leaves that look straight out of a Tomie dePaola children’s book, all of which create a wonderfully strange world. A crop of gingerbread people, looking more than a little like Mr. Bills, look spooky, while Mom and Pop sing while on stilts donning fake huge hands. The visual wow factor aims high.
Oh, yes, there’s music too. Can I suggest you get over the fact that there’s no orchestra right away. Ok there’s a moment during the overture where you wonder where the other 70 musicians are, but it passes. Kathleen Kelly conducts a chamber group of eight musicians. No, of course it doesn’t sound full and lush. It sounds delicate, intimate, and perfectly suited to Twist’s treatment. (Buy the CD in the lobby if you feel cheated.) The key to Twist’s twist is what he is doing with scale. The witch towers over the whole crew, gigantic furniture render Hansel and Gretel tiny, the downsizing of the sound feels right for the world Twist is making here, although the choice may infuriate some opera lovers.
The leads all hark from the renowned Houston Grand Opera Studio. Rebekah Camm’s sweet soprano has just the light, playful touch Gretel’s role demands. She’s all girlish and dreamy. Mezzo-soprano Fiona Murphy’s spirited Hansel provides a strong counterpart to Camm’s whimsy. Their voices merge beautifully in the famous prayer duet. Physically, both nail that can’t-sit-still kid routine. Liam Bonner turns in a strong performance (both as a singer and puppet operator) as the witch. Kudos to the team under his skirt as well. Ryan McKinny and Jennifer Root sound forceful and look imposing as the super-sized parents. Albina Shagimuratova brings an eerie and mystical quality as the Sandman and Dew Fairy triumphs. The Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus, under the direction of Karen Reeves, are delightful as the gingerbread people. The puppeteers, culled from top troupes all over the states, are outstanding. Houston hometown puppeteers, Joel Orr, Eric Doss, and Jenny Campbell, are also part of the Twist team.
Twists’ production pulls at the underlying sense of the absurd inherent that comes with the folk tradition. All in all, this is one enchantingly sinister Hansel and Gretel, just as a fairy tale should be.