Elizabeth DeShong, as Hansel, and Jill Grove as The Witch during Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" at the Civic Opera House in Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday, December 5, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
Hansel and Gretel
When: Through Jan. 19
Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Info: (312) 332-2244; lyricopera.org
Updated: January 11, 2013 6:19AM
As with many of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, “Hansel and Gretel” has gone from its early 19th century collection from Germanic rural sources to publication, adaptation and interpretation, and from darkness to light to darkness again.
Such is the journey, too, of its most famous and lasting adaptation, German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 operatic “fairy-tale play.” The scenario and libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette softened the story and gave it an ultimately intact and happy family. Humperdinck set it to playful, angelic and prayerful music — by way of Wagner of all sources. And at the end of the millennium, director Richard Jones and designer John Macfarlane plunged the story back into darkness, both physical and psychological, and created in a co-production of Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago one of the most popular new opera presentations of the past 15 years.
Friday night at the Civc Opera House, Lyric opened its first revival of the work and staging since it gave the U.S. premiere in December 2001 and showed immediately why it took off so. The concept and design shift from the fears of unloved children to the universal need for and fascination, and in modern life, obsession, with food. Lush painted screens draw on artists from Wayne Thiebaud, Francis Bacon and the Rolling Stones to open and foretell each of the three acts. The remarkable transformation of two wholly adult female singers into entirely believable male and female sibling children is effective immediately, here with young American director Eric Einhorn doing the restaging.
We move from a cramped kitchen of a poor country family to a strawberry-picking trip gone wrong to the jam (literally) packed kitchen of the cannibalistic witch, here transformed into an over-the-top madcap Julia Child figure. The central Act Two remains the Jones-Macfarlane masterpiece with the children, lost in the haunted forest, encountering the Sandman, singing their famous Evening Prayer and finding themselves in a heavenly dream equal parts Maurice Sendak and Rene Magritte, with chubby, cartoon-like waiters commanded by a fish-headed maitre d’ silently laying out a banquet for the hungry pair. There were many children in the house and the ones I saw seemed fascinated at all times.
As throughout the season, the cast (in this case, all Americans) is both strong and fully balanced. Ryan Center alumnae Maria Kanyova, soprano, and Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo, each enjoying busy North American careers, are the gangly pre-adolescent Gretel and the boy-will-be-boy Hansel. And when I say “are” I mean are. They become the ages and genders of their characters for the evening’s full two hours and 20 minutes, and their voices are both beautiful and blend perfectly. Soprano Julie Makerov is powerful and unusually nuanced as the Mother, and baritone Brian Mulligan is buoyant as the given to drink Father who comes home with an unexpected bounty of groceries, and even a quarter-pound of coffee.
Mezzo Jill Grove plays and sings her second wildly-costumed wild villainess this year at Lyric after opening the season as the murderous Klytaemnestra in “Elektra” and she is as funny here as she was creepy there. The Witch is a mess, and Grove throws herself into that as well as into making a mess of her giant kitchen.
“Hansel and Gretel” is led musically by the ambitious American conductor Ward Stare, just 30 and the former principal trombone of the Lyric Orchestra, a post he won while still a teenager. This is only his second opera, his first in the States, and it’s not clear that without his good connections he would have snared this prime-time spot with a major international company. He was efficient and assured on the podium but not always grasping the depth and references of the score, Humperdinck’s one major and lasting work. There’s nothing wrong at all with working first with smaller companies to build up one’s repertoire and to learn how an opera orchestra needs to breathe and feel its pulse in different ways from a concert and symphonic ensemble.