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'Hansel and Gretel' is sweetly divine

“HANSEL AND GRETEL,” Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South; Jan. 19 and 21 at 7:30 p.m. with a final matinee performance Jan. 23 at 2 p.m.; tickets start at $10 and can be purchased at 801-355-ARTS, or in person at the Abravanel Hall or Capitol Theatre box offices

There was something different at the Utah Opera.

As more and more cushions were taken from the coat check and little heads peered over the orchestra pit railing, it was apparent that Capitol Theatre had been infiltrated by much younger patrons.

When viewing Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” younger audience members are always a welcome treat. Little giggles can be heard throughout, and there’s a constant reminder sitting next to you that the performance is for a simpler, more innocent you.

But it wasn’t just the audience members who made this year’s “Hansel and Gretel” performance magic. Anya Matanovič’s Gretel was so charming and dainty that her often challenging vocals seemed like the genuine playings of an imaginative little girl. And Leah Wool’s frolicsome Hansel lent a comedic balance to the duo, making the emotional investment in our protagonists an easy sell.

The show opens with Humperdink’s beautiful overture, conducted by the talented Ari Pelto. I saw one little girl grin widely as the sweeping, romantic score shifted quickly to quirky slapstick and then back to the Wagner-inspired orchestration.

The lights dim further and the curtain opens on two hungry children, singing and playing; and like most children enjoying themselves, summoning the wrath of their impatient mother.

The vocal exchange tangles playfully between the three, but ultimately a pitcher of spilled milk earns the children food-gathering duty in the Ilsenstein Forest. The children leave, the mother sleeps and another standout performance staggers onto the stage.

The baritone broom-maker Peter, played by Peter Lindskoog, sways to his own drunken theme, spreading cheer to both stage characters and audience members alike. Lindskoog’s full, warm voice fills the theater, and his casual charisma brings a winning presence to the should-be hero.

It doesn’t take long before the drunken broom-maker learns of his children’s forest duties, and soon all four characters are wandering the woods looking for berries, each other and their way home.

While most younger audience members will remember the edible house and sinister witch, played be Jennifer Roderer, the beauty of the show lies in the woods. That’s where Hansel and Gretel encounter the mysterious Sandman played by Kate Tombaugh, who protects them with the help of some very young and mystical dancers. It’s also where the two children sing the most recognizable piece from the opera, the "Evening Prayer."

Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” is a surprisingly sophisticated work both musically and thematically. It’s no wonder then that David Gately, the show’s director, decided to present the piece in a refreshingly simple way. The sets are traditional, the staging relies heavily on its performers and the magic of the tale isn’t left to special effects — though a dancing broom offered some fun moments visually.

While there were a few performances that seemed to carry the feel of opening-night jitters, the actors conveying the story lit up each scene with a rare and sincere glow.