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HANSEL and GRETEL with Buffalo Opera Unlimited provides gorgeous score, mixed performances at Rockwell Hall

hansel-and-gretel-gingerbread-cookiesTHE BASICS:  Buffalo Opera Unlimited presents a three-act opera, HANSEL AND GRETEL, by the great 19th century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck, sung in English with English supertitles, fully staged, with a 27-piece orchestra, an 11-child chorus and the best 14 angels you’ll ever see. On stage at Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center, 1300 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14222, on the Buff State Campus (plenty of free parking) Saturday night, December 2 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, December 4 at 2:30. Tickets at the door. Snacks, soda, and water are available and gingerbread cookies are given to every patron at the end. www.buffalooperunlimited.org  General: $30.00, Seniors: $25.00, Students/Children: $10.00 Runtime: a little under 2-1/2 hours with two 20-minute intermissions.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  This is the familiar story of the two children who in Act I misbehave, the milk is spilt, and Gretel and Hansel are sent into the woods to pick strawberries for dinner under threat of a whipping if the basket is not filled. Well, in Act II they pick the berries, but then eat them all, and now, as the forest grows dark, they become lost, and, after singing the famous “Evening Prayer” (When at night I go to sleep, fourteen angels watch do keep…) they awaken in Act III only to stumble upon the witch’s gingerbread house. Before she can turn the two (and the other children she has captured) into gingerbread, they turn the tables on her. The family is reunited and all ends well.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: One particular moment was so outstanding that, were I not previously committed, I would go back on Sunday. I can’t go, but you should. Bernadine De Mike has done double duty as both choreographer and costumer, and her fourteen angels (students at Darlene Ceglia’s Dance Project) with their crowns and falls of golden hair, 14 little Loreleis, were the very embodiment of German High Romanticism. In the finale of Act II, they are arranged in pairs (as the song says “……Two my head are guarding, Two my feet are guiding; Two upon my right hand, Two upon my left hand, Two who warmly cover, Two who o’er me hover, Two to whom ’tis given to guide my steps to heaven…”) and perform this wave-like ballet propelling the final two angels to the two sleeping children. I’ll never forget it.

Also unexpected was the relatively high quality of all the lead singers.

That angel scene was completely unexpected. Also unexpected was the relatively high quality of all the lead singers. Most people who say that they “don’t like opera” are put off by screechy sopranos and tenors who strain for the notes. And, while these are the banes of regional and local opera companies, with a few exceptions, you don’t get that here. Delightful in her absolutely-rock-solid portrayal of Gretel (even though that name is second in the title, it’s the role that really carries the show), Amy Teal brought the right blend of singing and acting from her first note to her last. She supported and anchored the cast.

The third high point of the evening was the brass section of the orchestra which, for Humperdinck (who learned orchestration from his friend Richard Wagner) is responsible for much of the magic. These guys (Steve Budnack, trumpet; Rick Fleming, trombone; James Pace, tuba; and Time Schwartz and Daniel Wittmer, French horns) really delivered that Wagnerian majesty (just think of the “Ride of the Valkyries” and you’ll know what I mean).

RANDOM THOUGHTS: While the overture was playing, Kallista Durbin provided a lovely ballet, as she roamed through the home, picking up objects and wondering at them.  These overture-ballets are becoming more common with the Metropolitan Opera, and it was appreciated here.

As Hansel, a “pants role” (opera speak for a female singer, usually a mezzo-soprano, acting in a male role) Elizabeth Wojtowicz sang well, but, as we’ve heard from intermission features over the years of Metropolitan opera broadcasts, it’s extremely difficult to act believably as a male, even acting as a boy. Wojtowicz was fine for this local production, but if she continues (as she should) in these roles, there’s apparently (to hear the Met mezzos tell it) a steep learning curve. In this age of gender neutrality, it’s not often discussed, but, men and women do behave differently, in a thousand little ways.

In this age of gender neutrality, it’s not often discussed, but, men and women do behave differently, in a thousand little ways.

Jeffrey Coyle, as always, fully inhabited his role, and when, for example, that role is the larger-than-life Officer Lockstock in the recent production of URINETOWN, Coyle’s “big” style works. Here, though, he plays a minor character, the father, but brought too much attention to the role. Since he is a two-time Artvoice ARTIE Award winning director, he should either have worked with the rest of the cast to bring them up to his level of intensity or he should have toned it down to blend in more.

The translation from the German by Constance Basche was better than one usually gets when operas are translated. The rhymes were not forced, the metrics matched the music perfectly, and the sentiments were clear. (Note: the lyrics quoted above are for illustrative purposes and are not Basche’s). Some folks find it strange that operas sung in English have English supertitles (the words are projected above the stage) but they really help.

I would like to quote from Tim Kennedy (Artistic Director and conductor) who in his program notes wrote: “Learning about Humperdinck’s close relationship with Richard Wagner was enlightening and led to understanding why this work has Wagner’s style throughout the piece. The work debuted a decade after Wagner’s death when there was a feeling of desolation in Germany because of the war, couple with the rise of very popular verismo opera [i.e. Italian realism, not German romanticism]. Hansel and Gretel came to the rescue in 1893 by taking the German people back to their beloved stories and to a composer who wrote marvelously in the German technique. This fairy tale, thought to be a short trip back in memory to the German people, grew to be one of the mainstays in operatic repertory everywhere.”

So many of our American holiday traditions are German (the Christmas Tree, the carols, the baked goods) and Buffalo is a German town (for example, that “weck” in “Beef on weck” is short for Kümmelweck, a German roll) that this opera just felt “right” for a Buffalo holiday season.

Three-Buffalo

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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