To all fairy-tale aficionados, “Hansel and Gretel” is a familiar tale: Two children venture into the deep, dark woods for strawberries and end up narrowly escaping cannibalization by an evil witch. But when repackaged and presented as an opera—in English!—by the Harvard College Opera, this candy-sweet tale, which ran at the Agassiz Theater from Feb. 4-8, presented an impressively layered interpretation of the classic Grimm story.
Strong performances drove the performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic opera. Hansel (Charlotte L. McKechnie ’15) and Gretel (Claudia D. Oh ’17), despite being far older than their counterparts in the tale, were convincingly innocent, mischievous, and child-like. The actors also brought complexity to their characters; for example, Hansel and Gretel’s brief bedtime prayer song as they fall asleep alone in the midst of the woods was a beautifully poignant portrayal of the feeling of being lost but finding solace in family. Additionally, Christina A. Bianco ’17, who played Hansel and Gretel’s mother Gertrud, depicted her character as more than just the original fairytale’s evil matriarch—after sending the children off to the woods to scavenge for food, she sang a riveting aria beseeching God for help and reluctantly put up with her husband (Matthew J. Vegari ’17)’s drunken antics.
The set was also impressively thought-out. From the rustic shambles of Hansel and Gretel’s home in Act I to the ethereal green of Act II’s forest to the garishly macabre colors of the witch’s gingerbread house in Act III, it provided a varied and compelling backdrop for the opera. The fluid set changes added a sense of spontaneity, almost magic, to the production—for example, the chorus of forest sprites efficiently dismantled the chairs and tables of Hansel and Gretel’s home and turned the stage into a soft forest clearing in the transition from Act I to Act II.
The live musical accompaniment by orchestral ensemble provided a fitting complement to the opera. Humperdinck’s opening score began slowly, a melancholy wash of sound that, when performed alone on the darkened stage, forced the audience to listen. The musicians blended the layered tones of the orchestra to set a tone and tell a story; it started heavy, turned briefly whimsical, and returned to its original gloom, just in time for the curtains to open. Throughout the opera, the musicians supplemented the opera and provided an aural landscape for the characters’ antics, whether it was Hansel and Gretel’s carefree strawberry-picking romp through the forest or the Gingerbread Witch’s near maniacal solo.
However, “Hansel and Gretel” was not without flaws. Despite the libretto’s translation into English, it was still at times difficult to understand the script, though that could be attributed to the style of opera itself. In addition, though there were many twists and turns that provided excitement and fresh takes on the story—for example, Hansel and Gretel’s encountering a benign, sleep-inducing Sandman and a gentle Dew Fairy before they stumbled upon the malicious Gingerbread Witch—a certain level of familiarity with the opera’s synopsis seemed necessary to fully grasp and understand it while watching in real time.
Despite the minor bumps, “Hansel and Gretel” was ultimately an impressive production. While it might not be everyone’s frolic through the woods, the production was certainly enjoyable and provided an interesting take on the classic Grimm fairy tale.