United States Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel: Soloists, Members of the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus, Chorus and Orchestra of the Pittsburgh Opera / Anthony Walker (conductor), Benedum Center, Pittsburgh, 6.11.2018. (RP)
Hansel – Corrie Stallings
Gretel – Ashley Fabian
The Witch – Marianne Cornetti
Mother – Leah Heater
Father – Craig Verm
Dew Fairy/Sandman – Caitlin Gotimer
Stage Director – Crystal Manich
Sets – Robin Vest
Costumes – Timm Burrow
Chorus Master – Mark Trawka
Artistic Director and Conductor of the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus – Shawn Funk
‘I bet you didn’t think that you would be hearing Wagner tonight. Did you?’ So Pittsburgh Opera’s General Director Christopher Hahn greeted those gathered for a post-performance Q&A with the cast and Anthony Walker, the company’s Musical Director who had conducted the performance. As both Hahn and Walker pointed out, one of the challenges of mounting the opera is finding singers who will visually pass for the characters with the vocal oomph to carry over the orchestra. Mission accomplished.
Hahn assembled a cast of young singers who are current or past members of the Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists program. The outlier is mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti, an alumna of the program who has gone on to an international career. With the exception of Cornetti, all of the singers were performing their roles for the first time; Cornetti had sung the Witch previously, but in German. To the amazement of her younger colleagues, Cornetti said this was her first opera in English.
The singers talked about their experiences in learning and performing their respective parts. What they said was, to a large degree, what I had heard. For some singers, the roles fit like a glove, while for others they were a bit of a stretch. The one thing none of them had to worry about was being heard: Walker was the most sensitive of conductors.
Mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings captured Hansel’s youthful energy both visually and vocally. Except for the voice, you might almost believe she was a strapping young boy. Stallings and Hansel were a fit. Visually, soprano Ashley Fabian was a perfect Gretel, full of youthful zest. Her voice was absolutely beautiful in the middle range where much of the role sits, but above the staff it could take on a flutter. Stallings and Fabian were a match for one another when it came to hijinks, and their voices blended perfectly. Their prayer in the forest was simple, still and absolutely lovely.
Another fine fit was baritone Craig Verm in the role of the father. It showed not only in the breeziness of his characterization and the ease of his singing but also in his diction, which was the best in the cast. His character gets off easy, slightly tipsy but good natured, bringing home a bounty of food to feed his starving children.
To Leah Heater fell the lot of an ill-tempered, harried mother. She said that the role sat in her upper range, more soprano than mezzo-soprano in terms of tessitura. I’ve heard Heater previously, and while there was no strain in her voice, its glory lies in the rich dark tones of her middle and lower ranges. In the first act butter wouldn’t have melted in her mouth, but by the final scene she was all smiles, rejoicing that the Witch had been turned into gingerbread and the children were safe.
The Sandman and Dew Fairy are telegraph roles where an immediate impact is essential. Sprinkling gold fairy dust with abandon, soprano Caitlin Gotimer has the requisite energy, and her voice makes a statement. Not only was she new to the roles, this was her Pittsburgh Opera debut, and she soared all the way.
Larger than life in her flamboyant costume, Cornetti was a wicked delight as the Witch. Her cackles and laughter filled the theater, especially the nonsense syllables that took her to high Bs. With a mighty effort Hansel and Gretel pushed her into the oven to the delight of all.
The orchestra sounded magnificent with burnished sound pouring out of the pit. In the interlude between the first two acts, Walker created a sense of tension and foreboding that was unsettling in its intensity. Equally spooky was the Echo Chorus sung by members of the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus. Marching across the stage zombie-like and holding masks with haunted expressions, those kids were downright scary.
The production, which originated with the Washington National Opera, is basically two-dimensional; if not particularly exciting, it has its charms. A fantastical, fairy-tale atmosphere is created in the forest scene by the imaginatively costumed denizens of the forest. The Witch’s hut is a gingerbread confection supported by red and white candy canes that came straight out of the book.
Pittsburgh is still grieving over the senseless murders committed at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Squirrel Hill is a neighborhood that I know well. It saddened me to find Wilkins Avenue still closed with heaps of bouquets outside the roadblocks. A fairy-tale opera about a wacky witch who turns children into tasty snacks and gets her comeuppance, so lovingly prepared and enthusiastically performed, was a welcome escape for me and, I am sure, for many others as well. Sometimes you just need a happy ending.
For information on the Pittsburgh Opera’s final performances of Hansel and Gretel click here.