German fairy tales are rarely more deliciously twisted than Hansel And Gretel penned by the prolific Grimm Brothers. A tale involving evil stepmothers and even more evil child-eating witches, there are few stories more whimsical and thrilling. In its 2012 – 2013 season, Lyric Opera Chicago presents Hansel And Gretel, a ‘light’ opera by famed 19th century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the 70’s pop singer of the same name).
Humperdinck’s arrangement paints a slightly sunnier picture than the Grimm fairy tale. Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods while out searching for food and stumble upon a magical edible house. The owner of the house (a child eating witch) attempts to fatten and cook the children, but ends up being tricked and pushed into the oven herself. This essential arc is consistent, but there is a slightly duller blade on the libretto. In the opera, the children are sent out to gather fruit rather than being cast out because the heartless stepmother refused to feed them. The simpering father of the source material becomes a brusque and surly woodsman, to the point where he threatens to beat his wife for allowing the children out of the house. The mother of the source material would not have been treated so, and appears in the opera to be more exhausted and stressed than maniacal and devious. Overall, the opera is a much more delightful and comedic rendition of Hansel and Gretel, even though still about as twisted as you would expect.
Humperdinck composes much in the style of his contemporaries Richard Wagner and Johann Strauss, however the bright folky themes throughout the composition offset the high viscosity orchestration of the style. The orchestra’s effervescence became almost ironic during the darker passages, where some of the more macabre scenes get the brightest cadences while the serene and pastoral passages contain pensive notes that increase the tension of the scene. Imagine music tuned to two scamps frolicking in the forest while a witch is plotting to cook and eat two children. The Lyric Orchestra (under the baton of Ward Stare) must have enjoyed their role telling the bulk of the story on stage, with some of the most fabulous scenes in the opera containing no vocals at all.
Mezzo soprano Elizabeth DeShong and soprano Maria Kanyova could not have done any better in the title roles. DeShong was transformative, quickly fooling me into thinking she was a young boy on stage, singing with the vigor and strength of a grown woman. Indeed, the vocal demands on the title roles are deceptively challenging. Kanyova and DeShong were able to appear childlike while still pressing their vocals above the large sound of the orchestra. Baritone Brian Mulligan does an excellent job portraying a brusque yet passionate father, entering the scene with a jovial aria that shifts quickly into an almost melodramatic performance as he describes the fearsome and horrible witch. Special mention goes also to soprano Emily Birsan, who performed a beautiful aria while piloting a grotesquely scary ‘Sandman’ puppet (who unnervingly saunters in from the darkness of back center stage), one of the opera’s creepier moments.
To that end, the staging of Hansel and Gretel creates a sharp visual contrast to Humperdinck’s ornate score. Full stage paintings of twisted smiling mouths or cracked dinner platters stained with blood would greet the audience as the curtain rose, accented by the ironically bright musical interludes. Set and costume designer John Macfarlane employs healthy doses of grey and black in claustrophobic spaces, which feeds the anxiety level of the characters. Rooms are stark and grey with smeared and dusty windows letting in minimal light; the exterior scenes are perpetually dark and foreboding. The witch’s ‘gingerbread house’ looks more like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. The forest scene contains men dressed in suits with large tree branches sprouting from their necks instead of heads. Perhaps the most whimsical scene is the dream sequence when the children are served by a fish headed waiter and pig-faced angelic chefs. The production is a wink to the Grimm Brothers while still preserving the aesthetic and grandeur of an operatic performance, a perfect balance of wicked and charming.
While relatively tame compared to the source material, Hansel and Gretel still has some legitimately creepy moments, so parents and gentleman with easily timorous companions understand the actual traditional definition of the term “fairy tale” sometimes includes boiled bones and baked witches. Other than that caveat, Hansel and Gretel should not be missed.
Hansel and Gretel is being performed through January 19 at Lyric Opera of Chicago at the Civic Opera House. For tickets, show times, more information about the opera, and information on other performances in their stellare season, visit www.lyricopera.org
Photos: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago