CHICAGO—A wonderfully crafted confection, “Hansel and Gretel,” now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is a charming spin on a tale with a happy ending that will charm kids, adults, whole families, and especially the young at heart.
Indeed, the Lyric’s production of the beloved tale, revived by Eric Einhorn from the British production by Richard Jones, overflows with an abundance of evocative imagery, inventive storybook sets, and colorful costuming that provides an exuberant escape from the day-to-day dreariness of Chicago’s gray winter weather.
The opera, by Engelbert Humperdinck, who, with the help of his sister Adelheid Wette (who wrote the libretto), adapted it in 1891 from the German Brothers Grimm fairytale.
In shaping the opera, the brother and sister team cut out some of the darker aspects of the Grimm classic to give the narrative a more lighthearted, more enchanting spin. It’s still a morality play in which obeying one’s parents is deemed of prime importance, but it uses humor rather than nightmarish fears to fuel its message.
The main thread of the fairytale, though, remains intact. Hansel and Gretel’s mother sends them off into the forest to collect strawberries. But instead of bringing the berries home, the children stuff themselves with the red delicacies.
They meet up with the Sandman who puts them to sleep, and then are awakened by the Dew Fairy, which is the moment that the kids spot the yummy gingerbread house.
The imaginative and captivating show is enhanced by John Macfarlane’s terrific set design and lighting by Jennifer Tipton. Some of the stunning images include a haunted, luxurious wood forest, curtains that depict a red gaping mouth with a swirling pink tongue, empty dinner plates symbolic of hunger and hard times, and, of course, the huge gingerbread house.
The scary part of the show, though, is when the kids meet the Wicked Witch, especially the finger-licking way she goes about preparing her large oven in anticipation of roasting Hansel for dinner. Of course, the children are saved, and escape the Witch’s clutches and the dangerous forest to make it home to their worried parents.
At first, one expects that the playful, whimsical, and comedic work would be easier to present than a typical tragic opera, but because the dramatization of the characters is of such importance, the performers are required to create heightened and more dramatic portrayals than is usually the case for most operas. In “Hansel and Gretel,” it’s not enough for the performers to deliver great vocalizations; they have to be exemplary actors as well.
The Talent to Sing and Act
Fortunately, the cast in this revival comes through with the ability to both sing and act. Mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey is a hoot as Hansel, and soprano Heidi Stober is a smart, gutsy Gretel.
Soprano Alexandra LoBianco does a fine job of playing the demanding and bullying mother, and baritone Alfred Walker almost steals the show as their drunk, kindly, and often very humorous father. The nasty Witch is played in a comic sendup by mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, and soprano Denis Velez is splendid in the dual role of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy.
In addition, a group of adorable kids, with angelic and harmonious voices (part of Uniting Voices Chicago, which used to be called the Chicago Children’s Choir), led by chorus master Josephine Lee, portray dolls that come to life.
Of note was the announcement made at the opera opening in which Anthony Freud, Lyric’s president and general director, announced that Sir Andrew Davis, who was Lyric’s music director from 2000–2021, had been named the Lyric’s music director emeritus.
Davis, who is one of the world’s most talented conductors, once more proved his mettle by stepping up to the podium and leading the Lyric’s fantastic orchestra in Humperdinck’s glorious musical score. Davis’s masterful overture at the opening had the audience cheering him with a crescendo of applause.
A laugh-filled, wondrous opera, this “Hansel and Gretel” is a feast for those who want to savor a delicious entertainment. The opera is not only rollicking fun for adults, but a terrific way to introduce children to the joys of great opera.
‘Hansel and Gretel’
The Lyric Opera of Chicago
20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago
Runs: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Closes: Feb. 3, 2023