You can always tell if an audience has had a good time by how it buzzes as it leaves the theater. And the audience leaving the Capitol Theater on Saturday afternoon buzzed at least an eight on a scale of one to 10, in appreciation of "Amahl" and "Hansel and Gretel" - a good show put on entirely by Utah's own competent singing actors, fostered by the company over the past 12 years.
And whereas "Amahl" was clearly superior last year when this double bill was first undertaken, this year the scales shifted to a better balance."Amahl" remained a magical opener, but "Hansel and Gretel" came across as a rousing fairytale charmer that made contact on all points.
Despite its beloved story and its ample supply of folk melodies, "Hansel and Gretel" is not the easiest opera with which to conquer an audience. Last year's outing was sluggish and sometimes stuffy, long and Wagnerian, with not one distinguishable word. By contrast, this year's version was engaging, quick-moving and full of fun, with supertitle elucidation of the English libretto much appreciated.
Susan Deveauno was the most delightful of Gretels, a little singing actress who never misses the slightest opportunity for audience communication. Andrea Evans played Hansel with coltish grace and sang robustly and intently, adding to a compatible chemistry.
Then there was the witch of Diane Beesley - a cackling, garrulous harridan with switching hips who teetered on the fine line between frightening and delighting the children. When the three of them were on, it was high children's drama. Tricia Swanson and J. Terry Summerhays played the mother and father warmly and sang well, and Elizabeth Paniagua and Karen Larsen sparkled as the Dew Fairy and the Sandman.
Much success must be credited to Daniel Helfgot's imaginative staging, with no stagnant stretches, and continual movement that was always childlike and innocent, never raucous. A good fairy who flitted through added fairytale charm, and the 14 angels who guard the children's slumber were the epitome of Christmas pageantry, lovingly choreographed by Julie Orlob. Dean Ryan kept the orchestra light and pleasant, not allowing Wagnerisms to intrude, and the final revival of the gingerbread children with their exuberant dance and laughter was as heart-lifting as it is meant to be.
Designer Ariel Ballif's forest was mysterious and intriguing rather than threatening, and the tiled oven was a masterpiece of special effects. But oh, that crummy gingerbread house, much like a White Tower hamburger joint outlined in candy canes. It should really be reworked.
Utah Opera singers are old hands with "Amahl and the Night Visitors," but Helfgot infused new blood in the action. Tricia Swanson sang the Mother beautifully and sincerely. Joseph Heninger-Potter sang Amahl competently but is too large to project the waifish pathos of this character, which by its nature calls for a little boy. The Kings fulfilled their mystic mission charismatically, and the shepherds coming through the house created warm contact. Susan Memmott's costuming was as always first-rate, with good lighting by Greg Geilmann.
The prelude performance of Saint-Saens' "Carnival of Animals" was quite unnecessary. A narrator is needed if it's done, it doesn't communicate with projected verses, and I found myself a little irritated to be delayed in my entry into "Amahl," for which I was fully ready when I sat down.