Encore Michigan

‘Hansel and Gretel’ is “mesmerizing” at MOT

Review April 08, 2019 Patrice Nolan

DETROIT – In the late 1800s, Engelbert Humperdinck agreed to help his sister Adelheid Wette by composing a bit of music for the puppet show she was putting together for her children.

The play was based on the beloved Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, and Humperdinck had so much fun using German folk music themes as the inspiration for his elaborate compositions (he was mentored by Wagner) that he ended up developing a full opera. Hansel and Gretel continues as a world-favorite piece, much admired for its tuneful melodies and lush, textured orchestrations. This production, however, which is designed and directed by master puppeteer Basil Twist, is positively mesmerizing.

The story of Hansel and Gretel will be well-known to most audiences if not in the same version. Like most folk stories, it evolved over the years and the adaptation Wette chose for her libretto is a bit more family-friendly. Instead of the wicked step-mother who ditches the children in the woods, this story has two doting but impoverished parents. The mother sends the children out to look for strawberries so they will have something for dinner, and they become lost in the woods. (No breadcrumb trail!) 

In a nod to its origins as a show performed with marionettes, this inspired, breathtaking MOT production gives the art of puppetry a triumphant return. Only the children are staged as “real” people — sung by Emily Fons as Hansel and Deanna Breiwick as Gretel. The women perform beautifully together, not only in their sweet, effortless vocals, but in the joyful abandon with which they characterize the little siblings. Their evening prayer duet (Abendsegen) could not be lovelier and transcends this production’s high entertainment value to engage us emotionally.

Fons and Breiwick perform against oversized set pieces that make them seem truly small and vulnerable. All of the other characters, including their parents, are either represented with puppets or performed by singers in augmented costumes that are scaled to complement this illusion. This may be one of the most compelling and artistic bits of stage magic you’ll ever see in the Motor City. It’s all about Twist’s production design, which literally puts the spectacle back in spectacular.

Everything in this show is kinetic. In the first act, there is a scene-stealing cat that draws plenty of laughs. Later, as the worried father lights a lamp and tells about the evil child-eating witch who haunts the woods, the shadow he throws against the window curtain ominously shifts to clawed hands and his story is eerily illustrated in a foreshadowing of Act Two. There’s also a mysterious crow that threads together the story from its cheerful opening to the dramatic conclusion, with a macabre twist that the Brothers Grimm would certainly enjoy.

Even the scenery is animated — the Act Two Witch Ride prelude is performed as the trees close in, shift position, and lower menacing, grasping branches. As Hansel and Gretel curl up together to wait for daylight, a benign old grandfather, The Sandman, sends them into a deep, restful sleep. A host of angels flutter above to guard them through the night, and when day breaks, they are gently awakened by the sylph-like Dew Fairy. The story proceeds much as we remember – the children discover a gingerbread cottage in the woods, taste its furnishings, and are captured by the evil witch who devours children by first baking them into gingerbread cookies.

This witch, however, is no wizened hag hunched over a broom. She is an imposing 15-foot creation, a collaboration between Twist, the famed Jim Henson puppet studios, the tenor Matthew DiBattista, and three skilled puppeteers. Adults in the opening-night audience gasped, laughed and applauded as this magnificent creation vamped across the stage and even managed a burlesque-type shimmy as she cast one of her horrible spells. DiBattista’s sultry vocals are a delight, and he clearly has fun operating his (upper) half of the wicked enchantress.

Mary-Hollis Hundley sings the role of the forlorn mother, Gertrude, and Russell Braun lends his robust baritone to the role of their father, Peter. Katherine DeYoung and Cheyanne Coss, both Michigan Opera Theatre Studio Artists, perform gorgeous solos as The Sandman and The Dew Fairy respectively. Suzanne Mallare Acton is Chorus Master and the members of her Children’s Chorus raise goosebumps in the opera’s closing scenes as the Gingerbread Cookies are restored to human form. Conductor Stephen Lord and the MOT Orchestra work their own brand of enchantment to elevate the appeal of this timeless opera.

This production is sung in German with English supertitles. It is suitable for children old enough to sit through a two-hour performance (plus intermission); certainly, the visually engaging stagecraft should hold their attention. In fact, Sunday is family day, with a thoughtful menu of activities and treats designed to help include everyone in the fun.

When Basil Twist was asked if the use of puppets signaled a blatant appeal to children vs. adults, his reply was perfect. “Puppets should not turn adults off to the shows,” he said. “They should turn adults on to puppetry.” This production of Hansel and Gretel brings that child-like exuberance to the MOT stage; it is not to be missed.

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Read more about Hansel and Gretel 04/6–04/14

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