Ulfung was the coy, scene-stealing Witch-in-drag on both nights, but he left vastly different impressions. Friday, bereft of his supertitle crutch, he seemed to be cackling clumsily in the gibberish of a misplaced Mime. Saturday, with the benefit of textual captions, he became crisply, amusingly comprehensible. It was nice to see what he was talking about. If only we could have seen him fly.
There is, incidentally, a long tradition of twilight tenors impersonating the Witch, but Humperdinck intended the role for a dramatic mezzo-soprano. He knew what he was doing.
Apart from the Dew Fairy, prettily chirped by the off-duty Gretel on each night, the secondary roles turned out to be problematic. Peter, the father, should be sung by a lusty dramatic baritone. Michael Gallup had to force his splendid basso-buffo to accommodate the high tessitura on the first night; John Atkins tried in vain to make his lyric resources sound dramatic on the second. Susan Hinshaw was unsteady and incomprehensible as Gertrude, a maternal role that really requires Wagnerian amplitude. Jennifer Wallace's dark mezzo-soprano sounded a bit unwieldy in the blessing of the Sandman.
Ultimately, Humperdinck was best served in the well-staffed pit. Andrew Litton conducted an expanded version of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (time for a name change?) with ample brio and with lyrical flow that stopped safely short of sentimental mush.
Dale Franzen, the second Gretel, has been known until now as Dale Wendel. Apparently she has decided to take on the name of her husband, identified in the program as a member of the Music Center Opera board and as "Placido Domingo's attorney."
In his seasonal valedictory, Peter Hemmings cites six "personal highlights" to which he "looks back with affection." The revealing list includes "Thomas Allen's deshabille during the opening scene of 'Don Giovanni' (and) Rodney Gilfry's more extreme deshabille in the 'Largo al factotum.' "