Washington National Opera delivers family-friendly 'Hansel and Gretel'

Engelbert HumperdinckJohn F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

For most people, the attractions of Christmas do not include the possibility of children roasting over an open fire. But that has not kept Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" from becoming a favorite opera at Christmastide.

Based on a vivid tale by the Brothers Grimm and first performed Dec. 23, 1893, Humperdinck's most famous opera does, of course, feature lots of talk and images of sweets, notably gingerbread.

So it's easy to make a seasonal tie-in, which is what Washington National Opera did over the weekend with a revival of its 2007 family-friendly production.

This abridged version of "Hansel and Gretel" drew lots of attentive and, as far as I could tell, well-entertained kids -- and adults -- to the Saturday matinee at the Kennedy Center's cozy Terrace Theater.

This sort of production, which keeps an eye on budget as well as the clock, invariably involves ...

compromises. In this case, the compromising started with a truncated version of the overture, a superb example of how Humperdinck's applied Wagnerian principals of thematic development.

I missed hearing the whole thing, but I understand the decision to trim (I have attached the complete overture at the end of this blog post in case you'd like to savor its richness).

The compromises also included the forces assembled in the pit to play that overture and the rest of the score -- an eight-member ensemble in place of the lush orchestra Humperdinck wrote for.

That really didn't matter too much, though, since the WNO players were in great form throughout, delivering this salon-style arrangement with considerable warmth and color under then sensitive guidance of conductor Michael Rossi.

The cast, drawn from current and alumni members of the company's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and sensibly directed by David Gately, likewise revealed respect and affection for this gem of an opera.

Bright-voiced soprano Shantelle Przybylo made an endearing Gretel. Mezzo Julia Mintzer summoned a good deal of spirit as Hansel.

As the Father, Norman Garrett made his mark with a sturdy baritone and vibrant phrasing. Sopranos Maria Eugenia Antunez (Mother) and Jessica Stecklein (Sandman/Dew Fairy) fulfilled their assignments vividly.

The production followed the now fairly common practice of turning the Witch into a drag role for a tenor. Corey Evan Rotz jumped into the assignment amusingly and sang colorfully.

Robin Vest's set, with a little hint of Sendak in it, worked well, as did Timm Burrow's costumes (including an unexpected Sandman-as-aviatrix outfit).

Now here's that wonderful overture, complete:

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