FARGO — The way its schedule works out, Fargo Moorhead Opera always opens its season in the days leading up to Halloween. While 2016’s steampunk take on “The Magic Flute” featured fantastic costumes, the organization never fully embraced the spooktacular season — until now.
FM Opera indulges itself and its audiences with this weekend’s run of “Hansel and Gretel,” a sugary, snappy and sometimes campy twist on the classic fairy tale. There’s a set that’s literally eye candy, vocals that are ear candy and a translation that gives the performers lots to chew on.
There’s not much new to the story. Engelbert Humperdinck — the late 1800s composer, not the 1960s pop singer — stays mostly faithful to the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, but makes it more family-friendly. Instead of a wicked stepmother marching the kids into the woods in the hopes they starve to death, the mom in this version is so frustrated by her son and daughter’s laziness, she sends them into the woods to forage for food. When the father returns, he warns his wife of the dangers of the forest and they set out to bring their children home.
The danger in the forest is, of course, a wicked witch with a sweet tooth for little children. Playing the witch, David Hamilton goes drag for a delightful portrayal that is so gloriously over the top he would threaten to chew up the witch’s gingerbread house if the starving children didn’t.
Hamilton had warned that his costume was something between "Kinky Boots," Cruella de Vil and Dame Edna, and he and costume designer Liv Helm don’t disappoint. The look is spectacular and Hamilton vamps it up in grand fashion with expressive acting and vocal tricks.
He has the best lines in Cori Ellison’s English translation of Adelheid Wette’s libretto and licks his lips over passages like, “I relish children / Just eat them up.”
Liberties are taken with the text as Ellison turns to rhyming for the Witch, but in the spirit of Halloween you’ll savor a sweet line like, “For church I baked a sweet souffle and cookies for the PTA.”
Somehow, an old witch who has been eating children for years is no match for two lazy kids who got lost in the forest, and Hansel and Gretel serve her just desserts by stuffing her in the oven to great comic effect.
Hamilton may get the best lines, but the stars are Kara Morgan as Hansel and Elena T. Bird as Gretel. Both performers are former Gate City Bank Young Artists, a sign of how successful the FM Opera’s program for emerging performers is.
Morgan was particularly inspiring. Director Eric Gibson created a very physical show and Morgan rolls with the necessary looseness of a young boy, but the mezzo-soprano sang like a seasoned vet.
The two stars sang a delightful duet, “When at Night I Go to Sleep,” at the end of the first act, a piece enhanced by the addition of Fargo Moorhead Ballet dancers as forest animals and spirits that carry the siblings off to a magical slumber.
The dancing was especially appreciated because the first act is a bit slow. Jenny Dufault is good as the mother, playing the beleaguered housewife as stiff as her overly starched skirt, and Anthony Leatham is charming as the dad, but the roles don’t offer much.
Helm again has fun with types, portraying the mom as a 1950s housewife and the dad as a flannel-wearing Brawny man.
The depiction of Sandman (Kate Allen), who puts the kids to sleep, seems straight out of the 2012 movie “Rise of the Guardians,” and Dew Fairy (Tessa Larson), who wakes up the children, is a cross between the “Guardians” depiction of the Tooth Fairy and a Japanime character. Both actresses are college students but showed great potential in their small roles.
Set designer Ann Gumpper does a lot with limited resources. While the mouthwatering gingerbread house of the Witch is delectable, it's just as inspiring how she creates a forest out of stretched fabric as towering tree trunks. Working with lighting designer Mark Engler, the forest transitions from the shadows of the night to basked in gold as the children awake.
In his first time in the opera pit, Conductor Kevin Sütterlin deftly delivers the score.
“Hansel and Gretel” is a bit of trick or treat: The trick is making it to the end of the first act, and after that, it’s all a treat.
If you go
What: Fargo Moorhead Opera's “Hansel and Gretel”
When: This review is of the 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25 performance; it will also be performed at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27, with a pre-show talk 30 minutes before curtains
Where: Festival Concert Hall in Reineke Fine Arts Center, North Dakota State University, Fargo
Info: Tickets range from $5 to $80; fmopera.org/tickets or 701-239-4558