Hansel and Gretel

by Don Westwood
For the fourth production in its brief history, the University of North Florida (UNF) Opera Ensemble presented Hansel And Gretel, the most famous opera by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck. The Ensemble gave the three English language performances on March 6-8. The performances took place at the UNF Robinson Theater on campus.
Engelbert Humperdinck. It’s a fun name to say, which may explain why a pop singer well known since the 1970s chose it as his stage name. The euphonious Engelbert became known as the “King of Romance,” inheriting his crown from the classical composer known for his German romantic style.
Composer Humperdinck combined Wagnerian elements with traditional German folk songs for Hansel And Gretel (1891). Though it brings to the stage the traditional Hansel and Gretel story, the opera is by no means child’s play. The score is known to be musically demanding and vocally difficult.
Kudos to Prof. Krzysztof Biernacki, UNF’s head of Applied Voice and Director of the UNF Opera Ensemble, for offering his students the opportunity to study and perform this challenging work, and for delivering a well prepared and confidently executed production. Prof. Biernacki served as stage director and conductor, providing the young cast with sufficient stage business to keep the action moving and reassuring musical cues to keep the proceedings on track. Solid support at the piano was supplied by Denise Wright.
The opening-night cast on March 6 featured Barbee Monk and Elyse Matthews as the title characters, Terrence Joseph as Peter (their father), Shyla Norful as Gertrude (their mother), Angelique Perretta as the Witch, Emily Sharrett as the Sandman, and Maria Pena as the Dew Fairy. All of these young singers are “works in progress,” as would be expected in a student production, the main point of praise being their ability to tackle difficult material and achieve a degree of mastery.
Members of the Florida Ballet Training Center performed as Hansel and Gretel’s Guardian and Guiding Angels, with choreography by Laurie Picinich-Byrd. The dancers were Emily Holt and Julian Rachal (Guardian Angels), supported by Breonna Chambers, Marena Galluccio, Marciana Rafada, Caroline Snyder, Kenna Valdovinos, and Amanda Way.
Costumes by The Costume Crew were nicely executed, in particular those for the Witch and Dew Fairy (think petit garden gnome with a spectacular white beard). For the most part, stage settings by Johnny Pettegrew and Kate Dial were well conceived, although the Act I family cottage interior tended to shake and shudder when moved upon.