Chicago Theatre Review
‘Hänsel un Gretel’ at Lyric Opera Gives Audiences A Lot To Chew On
Most people are familiar with the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale ‘Hansel and Gretel’, with the sugary, enticing house and the evil witch who bakes children. But for the Christmas season, Chicago gets a special treat as Lyric Opera presents ‘Hänsel un Gretel’ as a coproduction with the Welsh National Opera.
The libretto was written at the very end of the nineteenth-century by Adelheid Wette, wife of opera composer Engelbert Humperdinck, as a Christmas present for her children. She asked him to write songs to go along with the story, and after many revisions, Humperdinck turned his work into a full opera, and it as first performed during the Christmas season in Weimar in 1893 conducted by Richard Strauss.
Lyric Opera first performed their current production of ‘Hänsel un Gretel’ in 2001 after a successful run abroad. After winning several prestigious awards, including the Oliver Award for Best Opera Production in 2000, it is not surprising that it is welcomed back
to the Lyric Opera 2012-2013 season with open arms.
The production, originally directed by Richard Jones, is set in post-war Europe in the 1950s, when life was still very hard for many families, and hunger was commonplace. Jones worked very closely with set designer John Macfarlane to create steely, bleak, grey-scale environments that embody the darkness of the original Grimm brothers’ tale. The opera opens at Hansel and Gretel’s home, a stark, dramatically forced-perspective room with no food. The audience is then whisked away into a dark forest of looming walls and bare branched trees played by people, and then drawn into the witches’ industrial kitchen with oversized baking surfaces, huge furnace, and frozen doll-like children strewn about. Each setting is a variation of the same space: a room that includes a sink, a table, and an oven, emphasizing the opera’s theme of hunger, the uneven distribution of food, and how people handle each extreme. The hunger arc is also narrated by the large drops that fly in for the scene changes depicting different plates and painted in a darkly romantic style. The scenery and overall aesthetic of the production is beautiful, however there are a few drops that fly periodically with large menacing mouths, and their drastic color change from the grey-scale is a bit jolting, and the imagery is a little more violent in a ‘Rocky Horror’ kind of way than the dark subtly of Grimm brothers. It is also interesting that many of the costumes fall by the wayside, appearing bland and frequently look like they came from the singer’s own closet. This is surprising because Macfarlane designed the costumes in addition to the scenery, but they do not hold the same elegance and attention to detail.
‘Hänsel un Gretel’ is one of the few operas truly geared towards younger audiences while still giving adult audiences and experienced operagoers something hearty to chew on. The dark subtext and visuals are wonderfully balanced by the child-like energy and boisterously comedic action. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong physicalizes the pre-adolescent awkwardness of Hansel with a wide legged gait and boyishly searches for trouble, and soprano Maria Kanyova energetically portrays Gretel as an easily distracted, frequently dancing girl who is discovering her own body. As the two children embark on their journey, their world is bathed in the wild creativity of a young mind as they pick pocket the trees, are served a lavish meal by cartoon chefs and a waiter with a fish head, and throw brightly covered food all over the witch’s kitchen. The high energy is sure to captivate any young audience member.
Almost everything about this production is stunning, bust most importantly the vocal talent of the cast and musical abilities of the orchestra carry the opera. Baritone Brian Mulligan (the father) fills the house with his weighty words about the witch. DeSshong and Kanyova pair very well together, especially in a sweet prayer duet in the woods, though at times Kanyova is a bit hard to hear as her voice gets lost in the woods. Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove is fantastic as the witch, and her cackling vocal structure will make you laugh and slightly terrified while she prepares Hansel to be eaten. The comedy behind the music and words should not fool you. ‘Hänsel un Gretel’ is a vocally very difficult opera requiring a lot of finesse which the Lyric cast navigates well.
If you are a seasoned operagoer, this is a wonderful production to see because the stunning visuals rise to the challenge of the vocals. And if you are new to opera, especially if you want to begin introducing your children to opera, this is a wonderful and fun production to step into for the first time.
Hänsel un Gretel
Composed by Engelbert Humperdinck
Libretto by Adelheid Wette
Based on the story in the Grimm Brothers’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen
Conductor Ward Stare
Original Production directed by Richard Jones
Director Eric Einhorn
20 North Wacker Drive
performances run through January 19, 2013
for more information, please visit www.theatreinchicago.com