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This performance is a preview of the production that will run for four shows, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the Turnage Theatre in Washington. For details, see the sidebar.
I have been following the ECU Opera Theater for several years now; they never fail to create an excellent production. So, I was more delighted than surprised at the dashing Hansel and Gretel that they turned out in a preview performance in the neutral "white box" of A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall. Director Daniel Shirley always gets the most out of his students.
There were hardly any sets – a table and chairs and a couple of free-standing flats to represent the gingerbread house and the witch's cage for fattening children prior to eating them. Another minimizing factor was the use of piano instead of the full pit band that will play the Washington production.
Shirley is a man of many parts, here director, stagehand, doorman, and janitor, all par excellence. The challenges of rehearsing a show in one theatre for a run in another theatre are sufficient, but to actually stage it for the public once in the one before going on the road to the other adds another layer of complication.
Theater is demanding, both for faculty and students; Shirley's willingness to do whatever needs to be done only contributes to his popularity with his students. In his mercifully brief talking head moment at the beginning, he took justifiable pride in pointing out that this preview cast is also an outreach cast and has taken the show to a number of schools near Greenville, introducing students to the magic of opera.
Humperdinck's choice of voices makes H&G a bit on the high-pitched side, originally calling for all female voices except for the Father, a baritone; Shirley helped the balance by casting the witch as a tenor.
This musical retelling of the fairytale opened with Hansel (Jordan Cartrette) and Gretel (Noclys Montilla) making brooms in the family hovel. Their voices were well-matched; their diction was good; their intonation was perfect. Their simple childish pleasure was interrupted by the return of the Mother (Veronica Rice), whose voice was a bit strong for my taste, but perhaps appropriate to the role of a baddy. All the cast was dressed in black except for Mother in pink and Hansel's pastel socks. The vomitory entrance of the Father (Davis Martin) and his bit of hat-swapping foolishness with the conductor, Maestro Juliano Dutra Aniceto, delighted the large audience. Aniceto never dropped a beat. Martin started out powerful; that he was straining his voice soon began to show.
The Sandman (Mikaela Schifter), entered from the house and sang sweetly and unforced. Her "sand," shiny gold stars, was not quite a glitter bomb, but very effective. The Dew Fairy (Hanna Worthington) also entered from the house; her voice was equally pure and pleasant.
The poor children, lost in the forest, sing their evening prayer. And it was absolutely perfect, eliciting applause from Shirley, seated in the audience, high praise indeed. Their intonation was perfect and their young voices were totally believable.
But then the Witch (Koby Gallman) appeared. What a wonderful, horrible witch! His voice, mostly unforced, was just what the part needed. And his cackle! Oh, his cackle. But we all know how it ends: In this case Gretel gets to kick the Witch in the butt to put him into the oven, a fine piece of slapstick! And we get our happily ever after.
The cast, joined by Shirley and Aniceto, bowed to a house fully on their feet; the cheers for Gallman acknowledge both his talent and the large circle of friends he has in the ECU community. I concur: Praises all around!
The role of an opera singer means taking music as it comes; there is no picking and choosing to find songs that fit one's voice, one's temperament, or one's personality, unless one flatly turns down a role, something not possible in this academic sitting. High marks for all the singers, who sang the roles assigned to them very beautifully.
For information on the performances this week at the Turnage, see our sidebar.