Monday, December 13, 2010

Phyllis Diller on Acid

My faithful readers will recall a less than favorable account of a workshop production of Hansel and Gretel in early October, entitled It's Hansel Season Again, or Hansel and Regretel. In truth, my complaints there were not with the singing, but rather with the presenting organization. That is not the case with Opera Manhattan's Hansel and Gretel, which I was happy to see one and a half times on Sunday.

The popularity of this production is no mystery. This is the second year Opera Manhattan has presented Hansel and Gretel, and it has tremendous appeal for young audiences. By which I mean audiences young enough loll on the floor enjoying candy canes while shrieking in terror at the witch. (No, among opera fans, that doesn't quite narrow it down enough. The Hanna Montana set? No, that still brings to mind forty-something single men in standing room at the Met, groaning loudly at every vocal offense, real or imagined, much worse than any how-many-sopranos-does-it-take joke. Um, do I mean prepubescent opera fans? I guess that's good enough.) While any small opera company faces budget constraints, none of the choices made in this production seemed to limit it terribly. The simple black-box theater (little more than a room with all black walls) was transformed by the many off-white curtains and the clever use of projections, along with simple Christmas decorations. Director Heidi Lauren Duke created some very clever transitions between scenes, with the aid of the projections, and her choreography was charming. The dream sequence softened this reporter's bitter old heart and brought tears to his eyes.

Photo by Ken Howard
The true star of any Hansel and Gretel is, of course, the witch, and in this case, that was true in spades. I was told I must see this cast to see the witch, who was described as "Phyllis Diller on acid--but not over the top!" I don't know what over the top would be, but countertenor Tyler Wayne Smith came pretty near the top in my book! In pink cotton-candy wig and red and white striped hoop skirt (well, there was a hoop in it) he was the witch of any opera queen's reviewer's dreams! He gave a very physical performance, at times using his bedazzled broom like a rocker would a guitar, at other times shaking his booty to allow his skirt to swirl and display his colorful bloomers. His was not the typical caricature of a witch, but rather had truly human moments of trying to figure out how to get these stubborn children into the oven, for example (a spoiler--she doesn't), or campy bits like growing bored with her aria before it was over and throwing the broom down, ready to chomp on a child. None of this inhibited his very fine singing. (I heartily recommend you click the link to Mr. Smith's web site and listen to the recordings there!)

With 21 performances over three weekends, there are four casts and two music directors to divide the work into manageable chunks. The full performance I saw* was Sunday at 5:00. That performance was under the lively and nuanced musical direction of Wilson Southerland, whose playing of the orchestral reduction on the piano and subtle cuing were quite fine. Amy Maude Helfer and Lianne Gennaco were charming as Hansel and Gretel, quite convincing children alternating between bored and playful and frightened, always with a delightful spirit. Dane Reese was adorably gruff without being blustery as Peter, the children's father, and Anita Lyons coped well with Gertrude, the mother--a role even more thankless than a lady in waiting named Inez, but also more vocally demanding. Mr. Reese's performance in particular had clever touches that made his character endearing, and he dealt with the difficult vocal part well. Honorable mention also goes to the lovely Brigid Berger as the Dew Fairy and Sandman.

The good news: There are seven more performances next weekend, Dec. 17-19. The bad news: Tyler Wayne Smith will be in none of them. I would still highly recommend seeing one of these performances if you can. If only for the candy canes.

*I was present for part of the 2:00 performance as well, but I don't feel comfortable reporting on that performance as a whole. I will say the Hansel and Gretel from that performance, Sarah Nelson Craft and Megan Candio, were true standouts, which is as it should be. Eve Orenstein, as the witch, also was a delight.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Those wacky Twits!

Over on Twitter, the hashtag of the day has been #operacarols. I present for your enjoyment a subjective collection of some of the best. (I note they're not all carols--tirade about the proper use of that word to follow.)

* Gesu Bambino Caro
* You're a Mean One, Mr. Grimes
* Carol of the Bellinis
* A Spotless Rosenkavalier
* Angels from the Realms of Gloriana
* I Saw Mimì Kissing Santa Claus
* Ba-Lulu-low
* Frosty the Snow-Manon
* Faust-y the Snowman
* Freischütz the Snowman
* Good King Gudunov
* Here We Come A-Walküring
* Venite Toreadoramus
* Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Papagena (also Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Arabella)
* We Three Kings of Orpheus Are
* Una Voce Poco Fa-la-la-la-la
* Chestnuts Roasting in the Underworld
* Idomeneo Look A Lot Like Christmas
* The Sleigh Ride of the Valkyries
* Rodolfo the Rednosed Reindeer
* God Rest Ye Merry, Wives of Windsor

And mixed in with the lot were some new operas:

* Yule Trovatore
* Cosi fan Fruttecake
* The Magic Fruitcake
* Frost-staff
* I Puritanenbaum
* The Cunning Little Blitzen