Opera Saratoga presented Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” Friday night at the Spa Little Theatre. It’s not like any fairy tale audiences have seen.
That’s because this interesting production involved Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based arts collective that for this opera used animated silhouette puppetry with actors, overhead vintage projectors and a movie screen. What they were doing throughout the show was completely visible to the audience.
Seven singers from Opera Saratoga’s Young Artist Program, members of the Glens Falls Symphony’s Children’s Chorus and the 20-piece Opera Saratoga orchestra provided the music.
Because it was sung in German, English supertitles were employed. The puppeteers and a few of the singers were in costume. The singers stood stage right and the orchestra was at stage left. There were no props or scenery. It was a lot to visually coordinate for the large audience, which was filled with many young people.
After a while, things began to gell and the performers got a rapt attention.
Plaudets should be given to Manual for having expanded on the shadow puppetry of German animator Lotte Reiniger’s work of the 1910 to 1970s to make a new kind of opera presentation. Working with live musicians rather than the controlled environment of film is so much more complex.
This show is the third time it’s been performed in the world (the first was in 2015 in Brussels); it’s only the second time it’s been done in this country. But within this tale’s interpretation, there were some unconvincing elements. The opera’s libretto by Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette departed from the Grimm tale.
This production stuck to her text but added modern twists. There seemed to be a comparison between the poverty of the children’s rural and 19th century or earlier-age family with modern images of skyscrapers and titans of industry. One of the fairies arrived in what looked like a Jeep and instead of sending someone off with a “good luck,” it was “may the force be with you.”
These latter brought a chuckle but there was no tie in to the folksy children. Despite feeling somewhat disassociated with these departures, once the mention of the witch was mentioned in the first act, the pace, which had been slow, picked up. The second act sped along. There was a lot of music – the opening overture is famous, and allowed Manual to set the stage with lovely forest scenes evolving.
The singers were terrific. Baritone Justin Austin as the father galvanized with his rich tones and eloquent delivery. Mezzo-soprano Whitney Robinson was a marvelously wicked witch never forgetting that comic asides when applied in the right places work wonders. The orchestra under Geoffrey McDonald was lively and kept balances well controlled.
Manual’s Mr. Sandman’s winged costume was delightful. In real time it looked so much different to what was projected onto the screen. This was typical. How they figured out what worked was in itself illuminating. Perhaps, much of the show’s magic came from being able to watch these puppeteers at their work. That was fascinating.
At the end, the audience erupted into whistles, cheers, and huge applause.
Other performances of “Hansel and Gretel” are July 8, 10 and 14.