Donald Runnicles set the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on fire this past weekend. First, he conducted music of late-Romantic masters (Thursday and Saturday). Then, on Sunday afternoon in Symphony Hall, he led a deluxe concert performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, which repeats Wednesday evening.
Humperdinck’s surprisingly powerful children’s opera, based on the creepy Brothers Grimm tale from German folklore, was softened and made more whimsical with the composer’s sister, Adelheid Wette, helping shape the text. There are dualities throughout: childhood/adulthood, fantasy/reality, diatonic/chromatic harmonies and, in compositional structure, episodic/through-composed. All of these combined into Humperdinck’s highly original voice and aesthetic. The great Richard Strauss himself conducted the opera’s premiere in 1893, and its popularity, especially in the Christmas season, has never waned.
This version was in Cori Ellison’s clever English translation, which isn’t overly dependent on the German original. She crafts her own details in the story, and her rhymes, projected on the screen, are often hilarious. There were no sets, although atmospheric lighting, plus tall green Christmas trees and a giant wreath, adorned in snowy white and silver, gave us a semblance of an old-growth forest. As an evening of theater, it all worked.
From the Overture onward we heard Runnicles’ loving embrace of this opera and its late-Romantic style — architecturally solid, emotionally deep and yet always with clarity, even as the music approaches sonic saturation.
Along with the conductor, the stars of this Hansel and Gretel are the title children, an amazing duo. Mezzo Kelley O’Connor, as the brother, is an Atlanta favorite in concert and on several high-profile ASO recordings. Soprano Jacquelyn Stucker, as the sister, is the big discovery. Her local debut singing Four Last Songs was a revelation. She was no less riveting as Gretel, which is a tricky role: The part is suitable for a girlish soprano (known as a soubrette) but the thickness of orchestration often drowns out lighter voices. Stucker had it all: pretty when she needed to be, with high enough octane to soar over the full orchestra.
The naughty children run and skip to center stage, crazed with starvation. They would rather play and dance than do chores: “With your foot you tap-tap-tap; with your hand you clap-clap-clap!” But they accidentally smash the family’s only source of nutrition: a pitcher of milk, which the mother needed to bake a custard pie.
Melody Moore, a powerful soprano, sang the role of the mother. In the score it’s a mezzo role and thus at the lower end of her range. (Moore flew in from California, a late substitute for the indisposed mezzo Michaela Martens.) Despite her Wagnerian background — Moore was a strong Senta in The Atlanta Opera’s The Flying Dutchman, in 2017 — her voice now seems a size smaller than that of her two charismatic, high-voltage children. Or perhaps the low-lying part isn’t ideally suited for her.
Nevertheless, she was equally convincing as an interpreter. After she banishes them to the forest to pick strawberries for dinner, Moore was able to express in an instant, by voice and facial expression, that she was angry at her disobedient kids, heartbroken that she couldn’t better provide for them and fearful of what lurks in the dark wood.
With a rich oak baritone, Stephen Powell plays the father, a door-to-door broom salesman. He arrives home drunk and happy: He sold his entire inventory in one day. Tonight, they will feast! But where are Hansel and Gretel?
So unfolds the delightful fairytale, with notable contributions by soprano Meechot Marrero. With a lovely, piercing voice, she’s the Sandman, singing a gloriously lush aria as she tosses magic sand into the children’s eyes at twilight. She’s also the Dew Fairy, who gently wakes them at sunrise. At opera’s end, the resurrected gingerbread children were sung by the sweet voices of the Midtown High School Treble Chorus, exactingly prepared by its chorus director, Kevin Hill.
Perhaps the largest personality on the stage belonged to mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, as the witch, introducing herself with a disarming query: “Crunchy, crunchy mousey; who’s chomping on my housey?”
With a glint in her eye, Bishop hammed it to the hilt. As a child predator and cannibal, she snarled and cackled and waved her magic wand (extracted, comically, from her ample bosom) as she did a little dance. She sang the role with hideous beauty. You couldn’t take your eyes off her.
Sunday’s performance was not well attended, a pity. There is one more Hansel performance, Wednesday evening. Do not miss it.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is currently researching and writing a book on the politics of Baroque opera.