There are lots of one-hit composers, but Engelbert Humperdinck isn't one of them — really! The prevailing impression, however, is that Hansel and Gretel is just about all he wrote — and it is that opera, based in fact on a series of songs composed for his sister, that served to cap the Duke Symphony Orchestra's 2007-8 season. The work, given in a semi-staged production with minimal sets and props in the University's Baldwin Auditorium, received the first of two performances before a half-empty house on Friday evening. The opera will be repeated on Sunday afternoon, April 20.
This is an opera that bears the heavy imprint of Wagner in terms of its orchestral weight, harmonies, and tonal richness (or, some might say, ambiguities). It's larger by far than any of the other operas that Music Director and Conductor Harry Davidson has mounted during his Duke SO tenure, and that — for better or worse — contributed to some of the challenges that were apparent this time around.
Members of the generally strong cast all have ties to Ohio, where Davidson himself, concurrently with his Duke position, serves as Music Director and Conductor of Opera at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The title roles were portrayed by mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz and soprano Susan Williams. Buchholz most recently sang here in the ALO/OCNC production of Lucia; both have previously appeared with the Duke SO. The mother and father were sung by soprano Cynthia Wohlschlager and baritone Brian Johnson. Soprano Jung Oh essayed the roles of the Sandperson and the Dew Fairy. The witch — "warlock," perhaps — was tenor(!) Timothy Culver, whose drag outfit included a caboose of considerable proportions. The gingerbread children were members of Scott Hill's Durham Children's Choir, cued for this performance by DCC Associate Director Dena Byers. Baritone Dean Southern, who is also on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music, was the stage director. There was no ballet, so we missed seeing the fourteen angels who watch over Hansel and Gretel as they sleep in the forest; in retrospect, an arc of children in white robes might have encircled them at the end of Act II. Otherwise, the staging filled all the prerequisites, from the broken jug in Act I to the witch's demise in what resembled a large microwave oven in Act III. The witch's house was pretty simple — more could have been done to spruce it up with candies and cookies.
The singing was generally good in purely vocal terms, but diction was a problem for most of the evening, despite body microphones for all the principals. One suspects that part of the problem is the age-old one of English-speaking singers not taking as much care with enunciation of their native tongue as they do with foreign texts, but there were other contributing factors, too, including the aforementioned heaviness of much of the score, the unavoidable matter of having the singers and the orchestra on the same level, and the somewhat boomy acoustics of the hall. The best, most audible singers were the two men, and Williams and Oh were generally clear, too. Unfortunately, Buchholz and Wohlschlager were mostly incomprehensible from seats on the center left of the main floor; those who will be attending the Sunday repeat may wish to consider sitting in the balcony, where the sound is often better. I should note that there is a précis of the opera in the program but no libretto, and supertitles were not used, so those who counted on keeping up with the action based on sung texts were at something of a disadvantage.
Still, it's the music that counts in a concert performance of an opera, and much of this was first rate. The orchestra of around 90 players, packed sardine-like on the back 2/3s of the stage, sounded wonderful, with a few exceptions, the chief ones centering on the horns, who had a really poor evening. The overture, the interludes, and most of the accompaniments for the work's many highly effective set pieces, were spot-on and thus often quite moving. In passages where the orchestra played alone, Davidson tended to dynamics, phrasing and shading like the master he is, and — thanks to some closed-circuit TV technology — there were few glitches with regard to the singers, who were forward of the orchestra. The transgender witch was a hoot to observe and a treat to hear. And can there ever have been such a charming batch of kids as were mustered on this occasion? Alas, they, too, were done in, to a certain extent, by the acoustics.
If you're going on Sunday — and you should! — you might want to take a libretto to keep up with the action. If you don't, then arrive early enough to read the story and then just bask in the sounds. For the record, the first two acts are performed without pause, making for a first half of about 75 minutes.