Naomi Louise O’Connell & Stephanie Sanchez in Hansel and Gretel. Photo: J. Kat Woronowicz Johnson/J. Kat Photo, Inc.

Hansel and Gretel

Engelbert Humperdinck, composer
Adelheid Wette, librettist
Brenna Corner, stage director

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

Growing up the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel was often a part of story time, whether in school or at bedtime. A cautionary story of a brother and sister who shirk their responsibilities at home and wander into the deep, dark forest. It is in that forest where allegedly a wicked witch with a house of gingerbread lures unsuspecting children to her oven for her dinner.

Like many other stories that we have heard over the ages, it is not surprising that a musical or opera would spring from the rich resources and violá, Hänsel und Gretel wurden geboren. Using libretti from his own sister, Adelheid Wette, 19th-century German-composer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the singer of “Release Me”) composed this oft-performed Märchenoper (fairy-tale opera).

Our Kentucky Opera last performed H & G in 2009 and if memory serves it was a fun and fantastical production. This year’s iteration has some fun, some fantasticalness, and some interesting choices.

Multi-colored plyboards provide the scenery of the woods from which Hansel and Gretel’s family live as well as the witch’s house, which resembles a cross between Dr. Seuss and Terry Gilliam’s animations from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Among these pieces of scenery lie some very clever stagecraft that demands close attention be paid. Not to mention, rather than stagehands clothed in black, the children’s chorus serves as the stage muscles, along with some other essential duties of storytelling.

And what may those be in this instance? Puppetry, for one. In the style that we first became familiar with in Broadway shows such as The Lion King, stage director Brenna Corner incorporates different kinds of puppetry. Using props and puppets from Old Trout Puppet Workshop, some of the puppets are simple, one-handed devices, but some are quite elaborate in portraying wildlife, mythical beings, and people. I was quite excited about the use of the puppets and for the most part, they were perfect and integral to the production. Masterful puppeteers Jason Johnson and Megan Massie, as well as the children and principals, lend their skills to add another layer to the story.

Musically, there were highs and lows. 

Under the baton of Kelly Kuo, who has been long overdue for a return visit to the orchestra pit here in Louisville, our Louisville Orchestra sounded great but I did wonder a few times if our principles were having a hard time hearing the orchestra as I heard some lagging behind and a quick catch up as Hansel, performed by Naomi Louise O’Connell, during the hunting of strawberries in the woods had some syncopation issues, as did Stephanie Sanchez as the Witch, as she transfixed the children into her spell. Another technical problem that was encountered is that sometimes the Witch puppet would swallow Ms. Sanchez’s vocalization, making it harder to hear and understand. 

Overall, the principles gave us a joyful and enticing performance. Returning to the Kentucky Opera stage Marquita Richardson as the Sandman and Dew Fairy had a velvety resonance and siren quality. Two other local favorites graced the Brown Theatre stage and played off each other like an old married couple: Angelique Clay as Mother and Chad Sloan as Father. Fancy that, they played a married couple. Ms. Clay put just enough “tired” in her entrancing voice to gain the audience’s appreciation of her talent and sympathy for raising impudent (at times) children. Mr. Sloan’s silky baritone was pitch-perfect and was the perfect buoy to move the story along. Personally, I appreciated that Ms. Corner changed the usual narrative of the Father in this iteration.

Despite the couple of technical problems that I mentioned above for Ms. Sanchez, her Witch was what I wanted from the character: shrill, powerful, and menacing. As to the siblings, what fun were they? Even though Ms. O’Connell had a little bit of a glitch, she was Hansel to a T. Her vocal style was nuanced and fit the “britches role” perfectly. The same can be said of Ashley Emerson’s Gretel. There was a time when I forgot that there were grown adults playing with nine-year-old children on stage. Ms. Emerson has the kind of voice that is filled with a youthful verve, yet is mature in its delivery.

The highlight of the evening for me was the “Evening Song” duet performed by the siblings. That was perhaps one of the best vocalizations of that piece that I have heard in the dozens of times that I have listened to or attended Hansel and Gretel.

Costuming was, by and large, what I was expecting except I was taken aback when I saw the Frankenstein-esque shoes worn by Father. Another delight was the costuming of the children’s choir (and some principles) at the beginning and end of the show…. a clever device.

There was a lull right before the intermission that could have used some tightening up, but the staging and lighting were all rather smart and made effective use of the space, props, and puppets.

All in all, it was an enjoyable jaunt to the land of fairy tales, and again, good triumphed over evil.

Bravi Tutti!!!

Hansel and Gretel

Friday, September 29 @ 8 pm
Sunday, October 1 @ 2 pm

Kentucky Opera
The Brown Theatre
315 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years experience in the classical arts.