UAA Opera Ensemble's "Aklaq and Nayak" retells "Hansel and Gretel" as an Inupiaq legend, using Engelbert? Humperdinck's famous music and the familiar plot of two children trapped by a witch, but lacing it with Alaska references. For the most part this "Alaska Native adaptation" works pretty well, perhaps better than some renditions of the original opera we've sat through.
The libretto by director Mari Hahn and Willa Towarak Eckenweiler keeps the food-or-starvation theme, but substitutes ptarmigan and seal meat for the cream and bread of the Brothers Grimm version. The father is not a broommaker but a hunter. The Sandman and Dew Fairy are a Snowy Owl and Raven. The moral is tweaked to reflect cooperation rather than faith in Providence. The score is cut down to 75 minutes, not necessarily a bad idea even, though we lose the overture and dream pantomime. There is no chorus.
The biggest shift from Humperdinck's opera comes with the demise of the witch, here "Igaaq Aaquk" or "Goblin Woman." Instead of the dramatic shove into an oven and subsequent explosion (usually), she meets her end more subtly, though no less thoroughly.
The primary soloists were good, and in some cases they were very good. In particular, Linda Porter as the mother and Kira Eckenweiler as Nayak (Gretel) both have agreeably large voices with accurate pitch. As the Snowy Owl, Victoria Graham had little to sing, but her benediction to the sleepy children was beautiful. Donald Endres made a strong father, Ziva Berkowitz a suitably stubborn Aklaq (Hansel) and Kelly Wilson an animated yet terrifying Goblin Woman. Nora Clark had the part of the Raven in the opening performance on Friday afternoon. Most characters are double cast, with other performers alternating in other performances, except Eckenweiler and Graham, who have their parts in all of the shows.
Elena Nalchevska Kaufman's costumes were a big plus. They ranged from simple kuspuks for Nayak and her mother to a very gaudy and somewhat incongruous getup for the Goblin Woman suggesting a Russian fairy tale. The costumes for Raven and Snowy Owl were particularly attractive and effective. Aklaq, on the other hand, looked like he might be a U-boat sailor gone AWOL.
Most intriguing, and underutilized, were the Inukin, "little people," the nasty, somewhat human, somewhat supernatural critters who figure in Alaska lore from Bristol Bay to Barrow. Kaufman had them dressed in black, with mischievous masks set at the crowns of their heads. As they groped around the stage, the performers lowered their heads to make the masks face forward, creating a gripping impression of weirdness and wickedness.
Carrie Yanagawa has created another extremely functional set with very little money. It was basically an arched frame showing tundra country, mountains in the background, with a center section that, by means of curtains, could be switched to different views of cabin interiors, the great outdoors or the witch's hut, which here, as in the German version, is made of candy.
The performance was accompanied by a solo piano, discreetly located to one side of the stage in a way that it did not interfere with the action. Janet Stiles performed the orchestra reduction expertly.
"Aklaq and Nayak" is scaled in a way that makes it easy to travel. That's intentional, said Reed Smith, general director of Anchorage Opera, which coproduced the show. His company and the University of Alaska Anchorage expect to take the production to schools and has an invitation to present the opera in Nome and Unalakleet. That's wonderful, but we would suggest that everyone else needs to work a little harder on the words. Only Porter had consistently understandable enunciation. And while the music is the thing in opera, the lines must be especially clear when asking schoolchildren to absorb the full story.
AKLAQ AND NAYAK will be presented at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. through Sunday, Dec. 13 at the UAA Arts Building Recital Hall. Tickets are available at centertix.net.