Union Ave. Opera of St. Louis completes their 2017 season with an excellent production of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, sung in German and seen on opening night, Friday, August 18. The performance got off to a slow start due to a technical problem, but within 15 minutes they had it resolved and the opera was able to proceed. It was on the whole a beautiful performance and an effective production.
The cast was uniformly excellent. Hansel and Gretel, played by Emma Sorenson and Julie Tabash Kelscheimer, certainly seemed to be in touch with their inner child. They danced and played like a couple of small children throughout, but their singing was nuanced and beautiful. Their ensemble singing was as good as I have ever heard in this opera. These two artists created a magical moment with their famous prayer at the end of act 1, which would have probably transported us all the way to intermission if it had not been for a boorish audience member who alone insisted on clapping wildly immediately following the prayer but before the music came to a stop. Meghan Kasanders gave us a troubled and weary mother who convincingly chased after the children following Peter’s warning about the Knusperhexe. The Peter of Jacob Lassetter was effective in his tipsy teasing of his wife and intense in his description of the perils of the woods. Both sang with style and artistry that beautifully conveyed the emotion and situations in which they find themselves. Melisa Bonetti as the Witch was both funny and terrifying all at the same time. Fine performances of the small roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy by Emily Moses and Gina Malone rounded out this excellent cast.
I have to say that as excellent as this cast is across the board, the stand out performance for me was Julie Tabash Kelscheimer as Gretel. Her performance was truly remarkable. Vocally she has a gorgeous voice that she is able to color and shape to express the music. She is perfectly capable of letting loose with a wonderful large but focused sound, but she can also sing gently conveying the emotion of the moment and then she molds her voice in the ensembles to perfectly blend with whoever she is singing. Hers was a magnificent vocal performance. But that’s not all! Her acting is simply outstanding. She completely embodied this little girl, from her wonderful dancing and playing with Emma Sorenson’s excellent Hansel where she has to cajole and pester him into joining her, to the fear of the shadows in the woods, to her courage in the face of the wicked witch hers was a captivating performance. And, I repeat, this is in the context of an excellent cast.
The other stand out performance in my view is the production itself by the excellent stage director Karen Coe Miller. Using what are obviously limited resources at the Union Avenue Christian Church she was nevertheless able to create the fantasy world for this fairy tale very effectively. From the poor hut of Peter’s family with bare cupboards, to the threatening woods, to the Witch’s candy house the set was very effective as was the lighting. I appreciated in particular her interpretation of the Angel Ballet at the end of act 1. Taking perhaps some inspiration from the Met’s current hunger focused production this production adds the need for love and security that are so essential for young children. With nary a Fishhead Waiter in sight nevertheless this ballet brings the children into an embrace of love and plenty that I found both moving and effective. I will confess that I didn’t quite get the point of the “Charlie Chaplin” Sandman or the Rockette Dew Fairy, still it all worked beautifully.
There were a few opening night issues with the set, and the oven door in particular. And I’m sorry to say that I felt the orchestra seemed under rehearsed. The overture was sloppy and there were moments throughout the opera of sloppiness and compromised intonation. I suspect that will improve with repetition. I understand that the company needs to use a reduced orchestration but I really wish these orchestrations would not remove so much of the low brass. The tuba was particularly missed in places and in general the orchestration needs more bottom in the sound. The conductor, Kostis Proropapis did an excellent job pacing the opera. The children’s choir was lovely, especially after they opened their eyes.
I was surprised that this opening night performance was not sold out. I don’t quite understand why and I certainly hope the opera lovers in St. Louis who support the other excellent companies will come out in droves next weekend to see this excellent production. Union Ave Opera does a terrific job and we are lucky to have this company offering these great performances!