The program notes for Rec Room’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel note that the opera “resonates with both adults and kids, and has become one of the most successful fairy-tale opera ever created.” When you see it for yourself in the Rec Room’s intimate space, it will be easy to understand why.
Humperdinck’s score is one of those big, lush things, so full of deep, velvety tones you feel like you could fall into it. Interspersed among all that huge music are moments of bright, chirping happiness. It’s the sort of score that makes you sit up and pay attention—and it says something about Catherine Schaefer and Keith Weber’s artistry as pianists that you never much miss a full orchestra bringing it to life.
But it’s also because the Rec Room’s production of this 1893 opera is a musical bon-bon brought to life. Four singers play the opera’s seven roles, telling the story of siblings Hansel and Gretel: poor, hungry, and sent off into the woods by their mother to hunt for food. Lost in the woods, they fall asleep and fall prey to a witch, whose enchanted cottage is made of sweets. When the witch bewitches Hansel to fatten him up and eat him, it falls to the children to rely on their own wit and faith to escape her clutches.
To be sure, it’s a dark tale—and nearly all the Brothers Grimm stories are—and director Matt Hune doesn’t shy away from those elements, even as the story gets some updated touches, like the callous mother reaching for her bottle of pills after sending her two mischievous kids out into the cold and dark.
But it’s also a dark tale that has brilliant moments of light. The opera’s “Evening Prayer” is a glorious harmonization by Hansel (Megan Berti in the traditional trouser role) and Gretel (a luminous Julia Fox). And the zany sequins Chaz Corder sports as the Dew Fairy offer a disco-laced lightness to his aria waking the children from their slumber.
Hune has managed to condense the opera into about an hour, while still packing its full emotional punch. His deft director’s touch is aided by the quartet of talented voices. Julia Fox’s soprano imbues Gretel with girly charm and a hint of slyness. Her top notes are round and ringing, resonating to the very rafters of the intimate theater. As her errant brother, mezzo-soprano Megan Berti is pithy and pouty, her voice offering hefty tones that feel like caramel on the ears.
Together, their harmonies and campiness carry the day, and Fox’s facial expressions are often downright hilarious. Pulling triple duty as Mother, the Dew Fairy, and the Witch is tenor Chaz Corder. His voice and acting are at their height as the Witch, his vocality infusing the character with a cackling, crazy evil that’s funny and disturbing in equal measure. But his purist tones are as the Dew Fairy—so don’t be so focused on the disco-ball of a costume you forget to hear his singing, or you’d be seriously missing out. As Father and the Sandman, soprano Julia Engel combines a beautiful register with perfect comedic timing.
Stefan Azizi’s set and lighting are transformative, from the ever-creeping fog to the meandering vines and trees that wander across the space and up into a trellis. A two-step stool and trunk create the family cottage, and a massive wood table laid with baking ingredients and accessories is brought in as the Witch’s kitchen. Even the Rec Room’s larger theater is small, leaving the audience to feel they are in the midst of the action with the cast.
As the opera moves to its delightful, deranged mess of a climax, you’re struck by just how much holiday magic this tiny troupe of artists has cooked up. Those who have seen the opera before will be impressed at how this staging both keeps its original integrity and presents it in a new light. And those who haven’t might find themselves made lovers of the art form after this production. No matter which side you fall on, though, the Rec Room’s Hansel and Gretel is truly a holiday treat.
Through Dec. 22. Tickets $30. Rec Room, 100 Jackson St. 713-344-1291. More info and tickets at recroomarts.org.