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Bedtime story

by Keith Barber

HANSEL AND GRETEL A STRONG OPENING ACT FOR PIEDMONT OPERA

When at night I go to sleep, Fourteen angels watch do keep. Two my head are guarding; Two are on my right hand; Two are on my left hand; Two who warmly cover; Two who o’er me hover; Two to whom ‘tis given; To guide my steps to Heaven.

— “When at Night I go to Sleep” translated from the German

As Hansel and Gretel fall asleep deep in the dark forest during the Piedmont Opera’s production of Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, the slumbering characters from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale are surrounded by 14 child angels. The music rising up out of the orchestra pit conducted by maestro James Albritten seems hauntingly familiar to most members of the audience, both young and old. In fact, it would be fair to say a number of the younger patrons attending the Sunday matinee performance could’ve easily heard the same melody from their parents before drifting off to sleep the previous night. “When at Night I go to Sleep” is the perfect musical companion to prayers that begin, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” and Humperdinck’s emotional score creates an atmosphere of childhood innocence and wonder.

The pivotal scene begins when the Sandman, played by Stephanie Davis, coaxes Hansel and Gretel to sleep and ends with the dance of the child angels. A hush falls over the audience, and they remain spellbound as the young dancers from In Motion Dance Studio keep their protective watch over the two main characters during the Oct. 4 performance at the Stevens Center.

The lighting of Norman Coates, the scenery of Jason Gardner and the cos tumes of Kathryn E. Grillo evoke childhood wonder and bring to life the fairy tale with a decided Brothers Grimm edge. But it is the direction of Steven LaGrosse, magnificent performances by a talented cast and the masterful orchestral conducting of Albritten that makes the centerpiece scene of the 110-yearold opera a poetic masterpiece of artistic collaboration.

Hansel and Gretel marks the 32 nd season opening production for the Piedmont Opera. In the words of executive director Frank Dickerson, the opera company feels a deep sense of gratitude to its corporate sponsors and loyal audiences that have kept it viable during these turbulent economic times. The sense of gratitude appears to go both directions during Sunday’s performance as the audience responds to the vibrant performances of Alicia Berneche, in the role of Gretel, and Rebecca Ringle, who plays Hansel.

The opera opens with (in Dickerson’s words) the “rich orchestral textures” of Humperdinck — the disciple of Richard Wagner, not the British crooner from the ’70s — in an outstanding prelude that shows off the talents of Albritten and his orchestra. When the curtain rises, the audience finds Hansel and Gretel home alone with nothing to eat. Gretel tries to distract her brother from his growling stomach by teaching him to dance. Mother Gertrude arrives home and scolds the children for their foolish behavior. While chasing Hansel, the milk pitcher falls to the floor and breaks. Angered, Gertrude sends her children into the forest to pick strawberries. Husband Peter arrives home to learn his children have been banished to the forest. He tells his wife of the witch who lives deep in the forest who entices children into her gingerbread house to bake them into bread. Panicked, the parents go in search of Hansel and Gretel.

The brother and sister find themselves lost in the forest and darkness rapidly falling when the Sandman sends them off to dreamland.

The Dew Fairy, played by Jodi Burns, wakes Gretel with magic dust. Gretel rouses her brother, who spots the gingerbread house. Hansel breaks off a piece of cake from the house and soon the Gingerbread Witch, played by Barbara DeMaio Caprilli, emerges. Failing to convince Hansel and Gretel to come inside, she casts a spell over the children to capture them, all the while cackling with delight. The wicked witch’s stunt double, levitated by cables above the stage, flies away on her broom to the amazement of the audience.

After Hansel and Gretel trick the witch and throw her in her own oven, the appreciative audience responds with enthusiastic applause. The gingerbread children, played by members of the Winston-Salem Children’s Chorus, are then brought to life by the witch’s demise. They lift their angelic voices to join Hansel, Gretel, Gertrude and Peter in a celebratory blending of vocal talents that brought the audience to its feet. The vocal and orchestral flourish provide a fitting finale to a fable that reveals how good always triumphs over evil and how important the Piedmont Opera is to the life of the local arts community.

Suzanne Cooke contributed to this review.

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