Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck; libretto by Adelheid Wette; premiere of a new English version by Cori Ellison, New York City Opera
Hansel & Gretel In The Jungle of Cities Because of my involvement with the company - I represent Jeff Davis, the lighting designer - this is not a review. However it is a commentary on the version being presented on stage at the Mahaiwe Theater...
The location has shifted from the deep woods of Bavaria to an inner city ghetto building. The time is no longer some mythical 15th or 16th century period, but is contemporary, well sort of. Mama, clearly an immigrant from some German state, dresses like a woman from the turn of the previous century while Papa, although still a broom salesman, door-to-door in this case, dresses like an auto mechanic of the 1960s. The kids are also from two different eras: Gretel is a child of the depression and her brother Hansel is a rapping ghetto boy complete with wool cap and Reboks. The witch, when we finally see her, is like an illustration out of a children’s fairy tale book, too sweet for words and the Sandman and the Dew Fairy are in almost classic comic book clothing and wigs. Arthur Oliver who designed the costumes has done some remarkable things here, visually keeping us in a limbo-world where nothing is quite what we expect.
The size of the orchestra has been reduced from a full symphonic band to a group of eight players: a string quartet, two woodwinds, one horn and piano. The small pit at the Mahaiwe has not been used and people sitting in the center section of the orchestra felt compelled to move to the sides in order see the stage better.
The singers are quite lovely, the right types for this version of the show. Alisa Thomason was a perfect Gretel and Carolyn A. Kahl did a lot of showy stuff as Hansel. Meredith Flaster sang Mother and John Fulton sang Father. Christina McFadden did some very funny things with her voice as The Witch while Laura Strickling and Jennifer Berkabile sang nicely and wore unusual costumes as the Dew Fairy and the Sandman.
Personally I am a sucker for Hansel and Gretel. I love the music. Anyone who loves the music would probably enjoy this slimmer version because it is well sung. ◊ 07-25-06 ◊
Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini; libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the play by David Belasco and the short story by John Luther Long.
Rough Seas for this Naval Bride
...we all enter the theater a half hour before the performance in order to witness the pre-show demonstration of slow-moving, boring Kabuki/Noh movement in an un-air-conditioned space. Three minutes of watching one man slowly control his muscles with his back to us while four dancers in ghoulish white makeup and costumes writhed at his feet was plenty....What followed was a mixed-bag of performance styles and skills. Director Gregory Keller explains: "Japanese theater has no such tradition of realism, and certainly no notion of a 4th wall...Madama Buttefly is 20th century music trapped in a 19th century box, and I want to explode both the music and the story out of the box, as Noh audiences have experienced for over thirteen centuries." An admirable concept, certainly, but a challenge not quite met either with expertise or ability in this case. Having characters enter and exit through the long "hillside" of the raked audience platforms doesn’t truly dissolve the 4th wall of the proscenium, especially as the lighting cannot bring us the characters, only their backs, as they descend to the stage. We have no relationship to the broad shoulders and wide hips of actors and actresses and, for anyone not knowing the story well, no connection to the action involved.
The designs of Dipu Gupta (sets and lighting) and Melissa Schlachtmeyer (costumes) are somewhat less successful. Gupta’s set consists of a double-high platform painted in alternating shades of muted ochre and brown surrounded by hangings that provide for interesting entrances and exits for the chorus and the four dancers who represent the spirits of Butterfly’s dead ancestors - including her father we must assume... At least the the orchestra of 31 players sounds superb under the baton of Music Director Kathleen Kelly, and the singing is almost uniformly good. John Bellemer really works the voice in his scenes as B.F. Pinkerton, the American naval lieutenant who seduces, purchases, marries and deserts his Japanse paramour, Butterfly. His is a solid and secure voice, pitched perfectly for this role and his final call for her as he intones her name over and over, always a mysterious moment of passion that can be interpreted in different ways, was the emotional lynchpin for this production. In his trio in Act Three with Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, and Sharpless, the American Consul, he was near the level of brilliance. In fact, all of them were. For those lucky enough to still be in the house, or awake under the 90+ degrees of the theater, this was both the musical and emotional highlight of the performance.
Troy Cook as Sharpless was a standout vocally and dramatically. This is a major career in the making, I believe, and he alone would be worth the price of a ticket. Mika Shigematsu sang a hauntingly beautiful, if emotionally meagre, Suzuki. Jason Ferrante was Goro, the marriage-broker, the only "comic" role in the opera, and he was fine although he seemed reluctant to play the sillier moments as written. Perhaps that was a choice made by the director.
Sandra Lopez, the Madama B. herself, has an incredibly rangy voice. It is based low and almost seems to be a mezzo-soprano instrument rather than the more lyric voice usually heard in this role. She did not take any of the optional high-notes normally sung in Butterfly’s entrance. She did not float the tones and she did not move us emotionally with her rendition of the opera’s best known aria, Un Bel Di Vedremo. It came, it was applauded, it went. It was note perfect, with a slight strain at the top, but it carried no import, no emotion. For pure sound it approached the sublime, but for full perfomance it gets a much lower grade. Her acting of the role was fine, but her clearly defined American gestures, hair and profile removed some of the believability from the performance.