Hansel & Gretel reviewed by Joseph Conway

In the realm of fairy tales, the story of Hansel & Gretel is among the most familiar. A pair of hungry children wander off into the deep, dark woods and find a house made of candy. Inside the house lives a mean old witch who tries to eat the children, but is ultimately outsmarted by the children and shoved into her own oven. It’s a simple, lighthearted cautionary tale filled with all the magic and whimsy one would expect from a children’s fable.

The Bronx Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel is no less magical, though a measure less whimsical. The title roles of Hansel & Gretel are played fantastically by Jennifer Caruana and Allison Pohl, respectively. In roles with such equal stage time, it would be easy for one to upstage or outperform the other, yet both Allison and Jennifer manage to do a remarkable job of matching each others childish enthusiasm at every turn. Richard Bozic performs the role of Peter, the children’s father, with all the overblown regality and dramatic resonance you would expect from a talented and experienced opera singer. Elizabeth Perryman’s interpretation of Gertrude, the mother, lived up to every expectation in terms of vocal flair. However, it was her acting ability that truly shined, simultaneously able to portray an aggravated old shrew and a deeply concerned parent.

Rosina TastyMouth (hold your giggles) the evil witch of our story, is played by Gilad Paz, who thankfully didn’t even bother to shave his manly beard before going on stage. As excellent as his time on stage is, I can’t help but feel that he never quite went all the way with the inherent humor of the role.

The witch’s helpers, the skull-faced Forest Ghouls played by John Carr and Marie Chantal Landais, do a great job at being creepy. Perhaps too creepy. Their deathly visage almost seemed inappropriate to a children’s fairy tale. In roles that can be best described as “ancillary” are Hannah Rosenbaum and Julie-Anne Hamula, who play the Sandman and the Dewman, two fairies with criminally limited stage time. Both Julie-Anne and Hannah make exquisite use of every second they get, but their characters ultimately feel like little more than filler used to pad out the score. And speaking of filler, I never expected to spend so much time staring at the curtains or at projected imagery listening to the orchestra while absolutely NOTHING happened on stage. These were obviously written into the score to cover up scene changes, but the minimalist set design makes that wholly unnecessary.

Thankfully that set design works quite well, especially when paired up with the excellent use of a projector. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more delicious looking candy house! The forest seemed a slight bit drab at first, but seeing the children flee from ghouls as the forest shifted and turned around them was a fantastically well choreographed piece.

Once again, the highlight of the performance was without a doubt, the magnificent orchestra. Michael Spierman has done a fantastic job bringing together a large and varied orchestra together and keeping them together for the entire score. What’s more, it hearkens back to a time when live orchestra’s were the rule, not the exception. Sadly, live music on such a grand scale just isn’t heard much these days.

Overall, The Bronx Opera does a good job in bring Hansel & Gretel to life. My one and only major complaint is that it just lacks a certain lighthearted flair. A certain “enchanting” tone that could really reach out to the younger audience the original tale was intended for. While treating Hansel & Gretel with the stoic respect of a Wagnerian epic is admirable, I can’t help but feel that the story would be better served by loosening up a bit, and really letting the immaturity and absurdity flow through the work.

But perhaps I’m nit picking. At the end of the day, The Bronx Opera has pulled together a talented cast, a wonderful orchestra, and a great artistic vision to bring us a fine production of an obscure opera. The show may lag a bit during the obvious padded sequences, but it does nothing to diminish the sheer value of this performance.