The Los Angeles Opera observed the holiday season by mounting Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”, reviving its 2006 production created and directed by Doug Fitch.
Sasha Cooke’s Hansel and Liv Redpath’s Gretel
A distinguished cast was led by Texas mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and Minnesota soprano Liv Redpath, who were convincing in their roles as child siblings.
[Below: Gretel (Liv Redpath, left) and Hansel (Sasha Cooke, right) unexpectedly come across a gingerbread house in a forest; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Cooke’s bright-sounding mezzo complemented a boyish stage presence that was so effective that I suspect casting directors from other companies considering this opera would (and certainly should) be enquiring about Cooke’s future availability for the Hansel role.
[Below: Hansel (Sasha Cooke) finds himself surrounded by gingerbread cookies; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Cooke is a sought after artist for contemporary works, creating the roles of Mary Magdalene [Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013] and Laureen Jobs [World Premiere Review: Ovations for the (R)evolution of Steve Jobs – Santa Fe Opera, July 22, 2017.]
Cooke’s comfort with the classic German repertory was demonstrated in her contribution as Wagner’s Magdalena to the sublime quintet Selig wie die Sonne [Review: McVicar’s Magical, Masterful “Meistersinger” – San Francisco Opera, November 18, 2015.]
Equally at home in her role as Gretel is lyric coloratura Liv Redpath.
[Below: Liv Redpath as Gretel; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Near the beginning of what clearly will be an important operatic career, Redpath has excelled in two of defining soprano roles – the innocent Gretel and the not-at-all-innocent Zerbinetta [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Delectable New “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Santa Fe Opera, July 28, 2018.]
Susan Graham’s Witch
New Mexico mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, in an example of the luxury casting in which the Los Angeles Opera often indulges, took on the relatively short, but dramatically important, role of the Witch.
A superb comédienne, Graham glistened in the festive costume and makeup created by Fitch, as dissonant from the evil character she plays as is the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ivan Reitman’s film Ghostbusters.
[Below: Susan Graham as the Witch; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Graham, who possesses a large, imposing mezzo-soprano voice that is usually enlisted for major dramatic roles, excels in creating over-the-top personalities in lighter works.
[Below: the Witch (Susan Graham, left) proves to be a disagreeable new acquaintance for Hansel (Sasha Cooke, right) and Gretel (Liv Redpath, second from right); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera. ]
Craig Colclough’s Father and Melody Moore’s Mother and Other Cast Members
California bass-baritone Craig Colclough brought energy and a secure baritone to the role of Hansel and Gretel’s father, Peter.
[Below: Peter the Father (Craig Colclough, left) gestures to Gertrude the Mother (Melody Moore, right); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Colclough’s career has been closely associated with the Los Angeles Opera. Although I have seen his performances in comprimario roles, his distinctive performance as Peter demonstrated to me an impressive range of his dramatic and vocal talents.
[Below: Craig Colclough is Peter; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Casting Tennessee soprano Melody Moore as the Mother, Gertrude, is another example of the lavish attention the Los Angeles Opera has given to the smaller roles in this production.
[Below: Melody Moore is Gertrude; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Always impressive in lead roles [Review: Seattle Opera Psychodrama – Melody Moore’s Magnificent Katya Kabanova, February 25, 2017 and Review: Gripping Portraits by Eric Owens, Melody Moore in Anne Bogart’s Staging of Verdi’s “Macbeth” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 17, 2015], Moore’s power voice and nuanced acting effectively evoked both the angry mother at wits’ end with her children’s high-jinks and the remorseful mother terrified that she had unintentionally placed her children in danger.
Other cast members included two members of the Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Coburn-Stein Young Artist program.
[Below: Taylor Raven as the Sandman; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
North Carolina mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven was a sympathetic Sandman, whose glittering “sand” wafted down from above the stage.
Georgia soprano Sarah Vautour, in her Los Angeles Opera debut, sang ethereally as the Dew Fairy, perched at the top of an apparatus that formed her gown.
[Below: Sarah Vautour as the Dew Fairy; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Maestro James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera
During Maestro James Conlon’s illuminating pre-opera talk (part of the series of lectures he delivers to Los Angeles Opera audiences before every performance he conducts), he described Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” as a conductor’s opera. The orchestra – one of immense size for a seemingly small work – plays alone for one-sixth of the evening.
At other times, the orchestra’s sweeping symphonic sound enmeshes the singers’ vocal lines in a web of leitmotivs of which one suspects Wagner would have approved.
Doug Fitch’s Production
Originally created for the Los Angeles Opera’s 2006 season, Doug Fitch’s heart-warming production is filled with endearing touches. Even before the opera begins, one sees – on the scrim that spans the front of the stage – a homey cottage at the forest’s edge. Puffs of smoke rise from the cottage’s chimney. Clouds drift above and create shadows on a nearby brook.
[Below: Director/designer Doug Fitch; edited image, based on a Chelalis Hegner photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Hansel and Gretel play together in the cottage’s interior, whose furniture dances magically with the children.
When sent into the forest for berries, the children are watched over, not just by Humperdinck’s Sandman and Dew Ferry, but by the amazing forest creatures.
[Below: the Gnome (right) is accompanied by the Warthog (left); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Ten creatures, all from Fitch’s imagination (and experience with puppetry), rather than the fourteen angels of the libretto (written by Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheld Wette), guard the children while they sleep.
[Below: Forest creatures (from bottom left, clockwise, Lizzy, Bushbear, Antwerp,, Ralphie, Doubletree, Totem, Loggy and Warthog) and surround the sleeping Hansel (Sasha Cooke) and Gretel (Liv Redpath); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera. ]
At the opera’s emotionally moving end, the Fitch’s giant gingerbread cookies fall away to reveal the village’s children, the witch’s spell broken. The children are played by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. Fernando Malvar-Ruiz is the chorus’ Artistic Director.
[Below: No longer spellbound as gingerbread cookies, the village children (the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus) react with joy; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Wisconsin designer Duane Schuler planned the lighting. British director Austin Spangler was Movement Director. British librettist Richard Sparks created the English translation of Wette’s German libretto.
Thoughts on the Performance
I regard the Doug Fitch production as a “world treasure”, and the performances of every cast member and the conducting Maestro James Conlon’s as masterful – a superb presentation of a masterpiece of German opera.