Fine cast brings warmth, youthful spirit to Northwestern’s traditional “Hänsel und Gretel”

Fri Feb 23, 2024 at 1:27 pm

By Landon Hegedus

Julianna Smith and Megan Fleischmann starred in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel Thursday night at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston. Photo: Andi Griñé

Opera with an edge may be all the rage these days, but there’s more than one way to bake a gingerbread cake. 

The bleak Richard Jones-John MacFarlane production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretelmost recently on view in Chicago in 2023 at the Lyric Opera — is one of the more successful productions of the last few decades to take that approach, with a stark, Freudian interpretation that jettisons the libretto’s spiritual undertones and fairytale innocence. 

Northwestern University Opera Theater’s soulful staging of Hänsel und Gretel, which opened at Cahn Auditorium on Thursday night, restores some of that whimsy and storybook setting while still retaining a humanistic bent.

This reading, directed by Joachim Schamberger, offers a dose of wonder by presenting the beloved opera through a young person’s perspective — often literally. From the opening scene, the tables and chairs are oversized to render the young adult actors at a child scale, while set-pieces bulge in the foreground and compress near the top to suggest a child’s-eye view. 

Gorgeously illustrated scenery — designed by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and on loan from the Kentucky Opera — provided an aesthetic through-line even as the story reached its more fantastical moments. Paired with subtly colored lighting designed by Sierra Walker, the backdrop underscored tits light magical undertones while keeping the setting planted firmly in the tangible. The Seussian design of the witch’s house, with its distended curves and pastel hues evocative of dragonfruit and foxglove flowers, was perhaps the most surreal element of the set.

Production design aside, this Hänsel und Gretel sailed on account of its strong leads, who were played by Julianna Smith as Hänsel and Megan Fleischmann as Gretel on Thursday night. (Two casts rotates on alternate nights throughout the four-show run.) 

Both singers succeeded in bringing a youthful physicality to their roles; while Smith’s movements were a bit stiff in the opening scenes, she eased into a juvenescent impishness that perfectly suited Hänsel’s bluster in Act 2. Fleischmann’s Gretel was a compelling presence onstage, armed with snappy physical humor with a warm, clear soprano that soared with ease, particularly in Act 3’s “Wo bin ich? Wach ich?”

Where some productions lean into the libretto’s quarrelsome banter between the siblings, these players took a sweeter approach in both their staging and musical interplay.  Their duet singing was magnificent, with Smith and Fleischmann blending beautifully in the Evening Prayer and the third act’s “Bleib stehn! Bleib stehn!” upon the reveal of the witch’s house.

The supporting cast was in fine form, too, particularly Spencer Greene as the father. His exaggerated buffoonery and adroit singing turned the father’s offstage entrance into a full-fledged highlight as he took an extended detour in front of the pit, and shared a high-five with conductor Patrick Furrer. Lillian Lansdell also excelled as the witch, delivering humor and heart alike in a refreshingly measured turn as the show’s antagonist.

The Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra seamlessly complemented the voices onstage, playing a key role in its own right. Conductor Furrer drew a warm, dry sonority from the ensemble with just a touch of schmaltz — a formula just right for allowing the rich scoring to create the atmosphere while leaving enough room to carry the narrative.

While the total runtime wrapped at a tight two hours, some moments still dragged somewhat. The second-act dream sequence, for instance, began as one of the more engaging staging moments, as the cast of angels was revealed in silhouette against a lavender wash and smoke; but the fairly rote staging thereafter didn’t go far toward transcending the earthly plane. 

Still, the ensemble had their moment in the sun following the witch’s demise, as the gingerbread children are revitalized by Hänsel and Gretel. Their radiant, pure-toned chorale underscored the father’s ecclesiastical declaration that “When the need is greatest, God puts out His Hand,” — a conciliatory nod toward the role of the divine in a refreshingly life-affirming take on this tale.

Hänsel und Gretel repeats at Cahn Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Fine cast brings warmth, youthful spirit to Northwestern’s traditional “Hänsel und Gretel””

  1. Posted Feb 24, 2024 at 11:28 am by Jane Santoni

    Julianna Smith was an amazing talent! I can’t wait to hear more from her. She is a rising star!

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