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The familiar fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, delightfully set to music by the original Englebert Humperdinck (1854-1921), opened the 32nd season of the Piedmont Opera in great style at the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. The small cast is augmented by a dozen children, members of the Winston-Salem Children’s Choir, led by Barbara Beatty, and a small troupe of dancing angels from the In Motion Studio (Michelle Nicholson, choreographer).
Alicia Berneche as the bright-voiced Gretel and Rebecca Ringle as her dark-voiced brother Hansel were excellent, covering the musical demands of their roles splendidly and acting every bit the quarreling siblings they were. Mary Siebert was perfectly cast as the mean mother, Gertrud, although one occasionally wished she would give herself some more heft to be heard above the loud but otherwise great sounds emanating from the pit. Her husband, Peter, sung by Robert Overman, was in great voice.
Brief cameo appearances by Stephanie Davis (Sandman) at the end of Act I and Jodi Burns (the Dew Fairy) at the opening of Act II were pivotal in terms of action and were sung with clarity and warmth, although the Dew Fairy’s tremulous vibrato almost ran away with the pitch until it settled down. Barbara DeMaio Caprilli, as the Gingerbread Witch, was a delight whenever she was on stage; she was malicious, witty and downright droll at times. Director Steven LaCosse coached her well and even allowed her to fly around the stage a bit on her broomstick. She too, could have been a bit more forceful as the orchestra was let loose a bit much during the slapstick drama.
The costumes (Kathryn E. Grillo) ran the gamut from impoverished (Hansel, Gretel, and parents) to lavish (the witch) to wildly imaginative (Sandman and the Dew Fairy). The lighting (Norman Coates) and angel costumes turned the famous Prayer Scene into a moment of unforgettable beauty and peacefulness. The scenery (Jason Gardner), especially the fearsome and grotesque trees of the forest in which the children lose their way, was effective and adapted well to on-stage scene changes during orchestral interludes.
Maestro James Albritten led the Winston-Salem Symphony with authority, clarity, and maybe a bit too much enthusiasm, judging by the occasional difficulty understanding the singers, some of whom might as well have been singing in German instead of English. Other Piedmont Opera performances, especially those in the original language, have benefited from super-titles; this performance would have been enhanced by them also.
The horns, which open the often-heard prelude with the bassoons, were stellar throughout the evening, and the somewhat Wagnerian music which accompanies transformation of the scenery from forest to gingerbread house was exceptionally well done. Indeed, the orchestra sounded excellent and well balanced in all the interludes and preludes.
Additional performances will take place on Sunday, October 4, at 2:00 p.m. and on Tuesday, October 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. See our calendar for details.