The Union Avenue Opera has opened a delightful production of Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck. You'll never hear this work performed by a more glorious collection of voices.

It is of course taken from the folk-tale collected by the brothers Grimm. Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, asked her brother to write music for some songs she had written for her children for Christmas. He graciously complied. Four songs grew into sixteen and eventually to this complete opera, which opened in 1893. It is still popular -- especially at Christmas, but it's welcome any time. 

Shining at the center of this Union Avenue production are Emma Sorenson as Hänsel and Julie Tabash Kelsheimer as Gretel. What a marvelous pair! Both have remarkably clear, strong and pure voices. Miss Kelsheimer's small frame conceals an amazing vocal power, and Miss Sorenson matches her. There's a famous duet in Act Two when the two children, lost in the woods, sing their evening prayer. This is one of the most serenely beautiful duets in all of opera, and these two voices, rising and twining in it, are unforgettably gorgeous.

The two make charming children, joyfully playing and dancing despite their hunger. Miss Sorenson sports a wonderfully tousled, boyish mop of hair -- and a ravishing smile, while Miss Kelsheimer -- almost a wisp of a girl -- is innocence itself.

Others in the cast do splendid work. Meghan Kassanders makes the children's mother desperate, angry and (on those powerful high notes) a little frightening; the family is near starvation and she catches the children playing instead of working. Jacob Lassetter, the father, does fine, hearty work. He's had a good day selling his brooms and (after a pint or three at the pub) he brings home a bag of lovely food!    

Now, unlike the Grimm brothers' version, the parents do not intentionally lose their children in the woods; they merely allow them to wander off. Nevertheless, the kids get lost and find that the Ilsenstein Forest is magical indeed. When they are weary and ready for bed a strange little man appears -- the Sandman. He sprinkles his dust and helps them to sleep. This role is beautifully sung by Emily Moses. When the misty morning arrives our children awake to meet the Dew Fairy. Gina Malone, a local favorite of ours, does lovely work in this role.

Curiously the Sandman is dressed as Charlie Chaplin and has the Little Tramp's distinctive toddley walk. The Dew Fairy (the score calls him "Dewman") is quite glaringly not a man at all. Miss Malone appears in this role in a scanty, glittery costume that is straight out of the Ziegfeld Follies. 

And the Witch! Melisa Bonetti blesses this role with remarkable comic gifts, both vocal and physical. She can shift timbre instantly and has a deliciously witchy cackle.

There is a charming children's chorus and quite a glorious finale. And from scene to scene strange mossy forest creatures handle shifts of scenery with all the swift agile grace of orangutans.

Kostis Protopapas conducts the fine orchestra. Special praise must go to French Hornist Nancy Schick; she opens the overture with an impeccable foreshadowing of the evening prayer theme.

Stage director Karen Coe Miller manages the scenes beautifully. Set designer Cameron Tesson and lighting designer Joseph Clapper give us a lovely fairy-tale world. 

The folk tale collected by the Grimms has echoes of the great famine of the 14th century. Costumes in this production seem to be not from the 14th century but from Depression-era America -- a strange choice. This time-shift is supported by the presence of Charlie Chaplin and a Ziegfeld girl. Americans then were indeed facing starvation. Now Teresa Doggett, as usual, does great work with the costumes but to show us Hänsel and his father in denim somehow destroys the fairy-tale feeling. This is not The Grapes of Wrath; it's Hänsel und Gretel. (I suppose that lederhosen might further impede our ability to believe that Miss Sorenson is a boy.) 

In any event Hänsel und Gretel at the Union Avenue Opera is a beautiful and very charming evening of opera. 

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