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A Cynical Take on ‘Hansel and Gretel’

TIMES MUSIC WRITER

Overproduced and overdirected, the Juilliard Opera Center’s new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” nevertheless makes a handsome, if cluttered, Christmas season bouquet for the series Live From Lincoln Center. Taped at the last of four New York City performances on Wednesday, it will be shown locally on Sunday at 2 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.

Its multicolored--but mostly downbeat--sets and costumes by the prolific children’s illustrator Maurice Sendak fill the stage with a certain brassy melancholy, and its stage direction by Frank Corsaro stresses the misanthropic angles in the original story by the Brothers Grimm.

Corsaro’s take on the scenario, he points out in one of three generous intermission features, is that it is frightening for children, and also deals with homelessness, alcoholism and family dysfunction. Despite the many contrasts in Humperdinck’s good-humored Wagnerian score, these emphases seem uniquely Corsaro’s own.

The solid performance, with Randall Behr conducting a willing but unvirtuosic student orchestra through a relaxed reading of this music, boasts talented, reliable young singers performing the original German text idiomatically and moving around the stage comfortably. English subtitles translate the text.

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Sari Gruber (Gretel) and Jennifer Marquette (Hansel) enact the title characters with great charm and sing the music stylishly.

Double cast in opposing roles, Mariana Karpatova brings genuine humanity--pathos, weakness and vulnerability--to the Mother (Gertrud) but only a generalized, cozy jollity to the Witch. Singers with different palettes are required here; there may be Freudian justifications for making them one, but there are no musical reasons for doing so.

Samuel Hepler creates a Father Peter who is entirely believable, and sings handsomely.

Quite unnecessarily, a mute children’s chorus--really sad-looking ragamuffins--twice invades Act 1, cluttering both the family hearth scene and the Dream Pantomime. One of the uninvited waifs in the latter even expires, for no apparent reason, except perhaps to fulfill Corsaro’s concept.

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The Sendak-Corsaro “Hansel and Gretel” is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera (where it was originally seen), Canadian Opera Company and the opera companies of Baltimore, Indianapolis and San Diego.

* Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” will be shown on KCET-TV Channel 28 Sunday at 2 p.m.


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