The opera ‘Hansel and Gretel’ bewitches the coven of the oven
Susan Graham as the Witch, Liv Redpath as Gretel and Sasha Cooke as Hansel / Karen Almond

LOS ANGELES — LA Opera’s bewitching Hansel and Gretel may be the most enchanting, optically opulent opera this reviewer has ever seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. With its stellar stagecraft, stagemanship and eye-popping, jaw-dropping scenery designed by director Doug Fitch with lighting by Duane Schuler, the audience is transported into a spellbinding, haunted forest full of spirits, including a Dew Fairy (soprano Sarah Vautour), a Sandman (mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven), plus a spooky witch (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham), who’s quite the ham.

Suffused with special effects, the overall ambiance evokes a sort of psychedelic Sesame Street with a Big Bird on acid, combined with elements from Peter Pan’s Neverland, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and the Beatles’ 1968 animated feature Yellow Submarine. The original score synthesizes Wagnerian flourishes with Germanic folk music by 19th-century composer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the 1960s Tom Jones knock-off, a British pop singer who adopted the same Germanic moniker as his stage name).

Soprano Liv Redpath portrays Gretel and with a nod toward gender fluidity, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke plays Hansel (just as Mary Martin portrayed Peter Pan in the famed stage version. The hungry sister and brother delve into the sylvan glade in quest of food. Deep in the woods they encounter apparitions and a captivating cottage of cake and chocolate presided over by a nefarious, scheming, cannibalistic witch who plots to do you-know-what to the unsuspecting, innocent children. (The music sounds like a Wagnerian leitmotif when they stumble upon this candy cabin: Humperdinck was associated with Richard Wagner and worked at Bayreuth as his assistant.)

I was happy to see many more children than usual attend this performance of Hansel and Gretel, but as with some fairy tales, the story’s subtext may have disturbing implications. This opera is based on the rather foreboding fairy tale, originally set in medieval Germany during a famine. The fable was popularized in the early 19th century by the Brothers Grimm. The opera premiered in Weimar in 1893, conducted by Munich-born Richard Strauss. Hansel and Gretel’s original German libretto was written by Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette, whose idea this opera was.

According to Performances Magazine, which is distributed to all operagoers, Hansel and Gretel is the only opera with a libretto originally written by a woman, but just offhand we can think of Gertrude Stein’s libretti for Virgil Thomson’s two operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All (about Susan B. Anthony). The version presented at the Dorothy Chandler uses Richard Sparks’s English libretto. The singing and the supertitles are in English.

The storyline involving putting children and/or adults into ovens seems like a terrifying symbolic premonition and prophecy of the Holocaust when the Nazis incinerated millions of Jews, Roma, Communists, and others.

Members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus / Cory Weaver

Onstage, after their supernatural persecutor is pushed into the candied cottage’s oven, Hansel and Gretel come across the wicked witch’s victims, who had been baked into gingerbread cookies. The arms of the eerie gingerbread men are thrown open, perhaps indicating they are in terror, while their biscuit mouths are wide open, as if they are shrieking like the figure in Expressionist Edvard Munch’s unforgettable painting The Scream.

Perhaps this reviewer has read too much C.G. Jung and is reading too much into the Germanic collective unconscious? Be that as it may, if one does not dwell upon and decipher any possible symbolism, children of all ages are likely to be delighted by this rhapsodic hymn to the triumph of childlike innocence. Putting aside any possible intended or unintended references to the Shoah, this production of Hansel and Gretel is appropriate for children and for everyone’s holiday viewing/listening pleasure. Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, the Spanish artistic director of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, does an admirable job helming his team of 39 tykes, as English movement director Austin Spangler does for the spectacle overall. And conductor James Conlon swirls his baton like, well, a magic wand.

Notwithstanding possible projections of the collective psyche, with its zooming broomsticks and even a flying witch, a good time is guaranteed to all. Fly to LA Opera with the kiddies!

Hansel and Gretel will be performed Sundays, Nov. 25 and Dec. 9 at 2:00 pm and Thurs., Dec. 6, Weds., Dec. 12 and Sat., Dec. 15 at 7:30 pm, at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012. For further information see here.

L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting a screening of ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ at 7:00 pm, Nov. 29 at the L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Pl., Los Angeles 90019, as part of Mark @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series.



Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.