Friday, November 15, 2013


Oberlin College
November 9

A wacky wicked witch with tasty plans for Hansel.

Anyone expecting a typical fairy tale opera in Oberlin this past weekend was in for a pleasant surprise. Instead, director Jonathon Field played Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel for laughs and splash, with animated characters in outrageous costumes poking, punching and brawling their way through big, colorful sets. German Romanticism was never so much fun.

Field, an associate professor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, has a longstanding reputation as an innovative opera director. He was one of the first to use video-projected and computer-generated scenery, and has handled material ranging from Mozart and Rossini to Adams and Glass. Other contemporary work includes the American premiere of Lost Highway, an opera based on the David Lynch film, and the world premiere of the jazz opera Leave Me Alone.

When the curtain opened on Hänsel und Gretel Saturday night, it looked like the classic children’s story: an impoverished brother and sister working in a barren forest cottage, complaining of hunger pangs. But these were not helpless innocents. Hänsel (Marisa Novak in a trouser role) traded verbal and then physical jabs with Gretel (Alexis Aimé), and soon the two were squaring off like boxers. When their mother (Kayleigh Decker) came home she proved to be even more of a bruiser, whacking the kids around and, in a witty foretaste of the wicked witch, shoving Hänsel’s head into the fireplace.

Arriving after the rambunctious siblings were sent to the deepest part of the forest to pick strawberries, dad (Daveed Buzaglo) affectionately threw his wife to the floor and declared “I’ll give you a smack!” after she called him a “tavern cavalier.” In almost any other context, this would be domestic abuse. But Field’s choreography was superb, with the fights more like dance scenes and the spills decidedly slapstick. Brisk, colorful music from the pit helped keep the atmosphere light and the narrative in high gear.

As darkness closed in around the children in the forest, the music turned suspenseful without losing its grace and sparkle, and magical characters began to appear. The Sandman (Micaela Aldridge), looking like The Shadow, sang Hänsel and Gretel to sleep. A full moon rose and shattered in a cloud of pixie dust that brought 14 angels in white gowns onstage to surround and protect them. In contrast to the combative tone of the opening scenes, the ensemble piece was delicate and endearing, as soft as a goodnight kiss.

A different kind of wake-up call.
The second half opened with the Dew Sprite (Emily Peragine), a dizzy character in elaborate white fringe and silver glitter, awakening the children (and herself) with a magic hammer. Gretel was about to go after songbirds with a slingshot when the trees parted to reveal the gingerbread house, a Gaudi-inspired riot of pastels at impossible angles festooned with candy canes, sugar trim and gingerbread children – some dolls, others live faces embedded in the walls.

The witch (Karen Jesse) appeared first in dark notes in the music, then in an electric outfit straight out of Little Nemo in Slumberland, topped by a black bowler with feathers. The only nonstudent in the cast (though an ’04 Oberlin grad), Jesse made the most of her brief time onstage, showing great dramatic flair and a strong voice with a wicked cackle. Having Gretel shove her in the oven wasn’t enough for this production; her body was dragged out and Hänsel cut off her head, which he and Gretel stood holding during a concluding choral number that included their parents and children freed from the witch’s magic spell.

The gruesome touches reflected an understanding and appreciation of the source material, which has been sanitized in most modern collections of Grimm Brothers fairy tales. Field’s genius was in preserving that element while packaging it in a nonthreatening way, undercutting the horror with laughter. He was aided greatly by conductor Raphael Jiménez and the student orchestra, who kept the atmosphere bubbly and bright.

The student singers showed poise and promise, with particularly strong work from Kayleigh Decker. In some ways the sets were even more impressive, big and smart enough for a professional production. Even the supertitles got an occasional laugh, with lines like the witch’s reaction to Hänsel not being fat enough to eat: “Then pretty little Gretel is the blue-plate special.”

In all, a witty and entertaining production, and another reminder of how lucky we are to have Oberlin.

For more on the Oberlin Opera Theater Program:

For more on Karen Jesse:

Photos: Oberlin Conservatory/John Seyfried

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