What a pity that Richard Wagner didn’t live to hear Hansel and Gretel. Every page of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy tale reveals how Humperdinck idolized the old master, who in turn thought well enough of his young acolyte to let him patch in some extra bars for a scene change in the sacrosanct Parsifal. Oh, well. Two of the earliest endorsements of Hansel and Gretel came from star maestros headed for immortality as composers in their own right: none other than Richard Strauss presided over the premiere, followed by Gustav Mahler, who led the second production. To this day, Hansel and Gretel’s stock among professionals remains sky-high. Just ask Patrick Summers, artistic and music director of the Houston Grand Opera, who calls the score, “without hyperbole, one of the two or three most ravishingly beautiful in the history of music.” The way he conducts his company’s ebullient new virtual production, he’ll persuade you it’s true.
The storytelling is tops, too. Directed with up-to-the-minute TikTok flair by Lileana Blaine-Cruz, the film showcases a diverse ensemble of artists in training at the Houston Grand Opera Studio, and what scene-stealers they already are! Bouncy in overalls, Sun-Ly Pierce’s Hansel and Raven McMillon’s Gretel light up the computer monitor with histrionic zest. It’s quite a coming-out party for McMillon, whose sense of fun, voluptuous tone, and joy in singing landed her in the winners’ circle at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions last month. Richard Trey Smagur, who emerged from the same studio to claim the same prize four years ago is on hand as the cross-dressing mega-Witch with the Dixie drawl.
The visuals fuse animation and live action in a green-screen wonderland from the prodigiously inventive hand and mind of Hannah Wasileski. Best of all, though, is the celebrated Dream Pantomime, an instrumental interlude many treasure as the most ravishing five minutes of the opera. The sequence calls for theatrical magic of a high order, and the production delivers it—but not in the now-shopworn form of the libretto’s 14 guardian angels descending a staircase from on high. Instead, the puppet designer Montana Levi Blanco brings on vintage portraiture of nameless Black and Creole personages, two by two, in an aerial procession that evokes a French Quarter long vanished. There’s a plume-crowned queen of the music hall, a top-hatted hustler, a nursemaid in her snow-white apron, twin princesses such a nursemaid might look after, a Mardi Gras harem guard (yes?) missing a leg of his silken trousers, a sassy grandma (no?) fixing to blow her horn. Each captivating, each an enigma, these charmers dance their protective dance to the music of time, orbiting around a brother and sister curled up asleep in the midnight blue.
What on earth does this mean? Best not to ask. Nothing before or after in this color-blind, contemporary, unabashedly American production hints at any tendentious subtext. Here, mystery supervenes, and what better can we do than gaze in thanks and wonder?
Hansel and Gretel will be available for streaming on the Houston Grand Opera Web site through June 27
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii