Lyric Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel” serves up a wry Freudian nightmare for all ages

Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 1:43 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Elizabeth DeShong and Maria Kanyova in the title roles of the Lyric Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Photo: Dan Rest

In the Bill Mason era, the Lyric Opera of Chicago inaugurated the tradition of presenting operetta and lighter works to coincide with the holiday season in December.  That programming continues this year with the company’s revival of Hansel and Gretel, which opened Friday night at the Civic Opera House.

Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera has come in for a fair amount of revisionism in recent decades, with its storybook scenario and religious pieties finding little favor among contemporary directors with a taste for the postmodern.

Such a staging is the Richard Jones–John MacFarlane production, revived for these performances. The Lyric gave the U.S. premiere of this Welsh National Opera show a decade ago and since then it has made the rounds, including the Met in 2008.

From the scrim curtains depicting a large plate and gaping red mouth and tongue, this version of Hansel and Gretel is all about food. The kids gorge themselves and dye their faces and clothes red with strawberries. The Witch is a demented Julia Child knockoff, and the children’s midnight prayer in the forest brings, not angels to protect them but a retinue of rubber-faced chefs who prepare a vast banquet dinner.

The production received largely positive notices, but its Freudian reductionism and emphasis on the darker elements makes for a show that is often too self-consciously clever for its own good, shorting the opera’s humanity and spirituality and feeling more than a bit dated in its bleak postmodern cynicism.

That said, Lyric has assembled a solid cast for these performances and even with the gloomy production, there are enough worthy vocal moments to merit a trip to the Civic Opera House.

A pair of Ryan Center alums made an inspired pair of title siblings. As Gretel, Maria Kanyova sang gracefully and was wonderfully endearing in her gawky physical movements as an awkward little girl. With her penetrating mezzo and rambunctious manner, Elizabeth DeShong proved just as convincing and vividly characterized as her bad-boy brother Hansel.

Etching her second memorable villainess at Lyric Opera this fall following her Klytemnestra in Elektra, Jill Grove was a high-energy hoot as the Witch. Singing with her big mezzo, clambering up her high kitchen table, menacing the kids, or uninhibitedly dancing with anticipation as she dreams of baking the children into pastries, Grove provided the most enjoyable and sheerly theatrical moments of a rather downbeat show.

As Hansel and Gretel’s codependent parents, Julie Makerov and Brian Mulligan made a sure impact, especially Mulligan’s hearty, big-voiced Peter.

Instead of a magical sprite in this production, the Sandman is a puppet of a wizened old man that looks like a prop from Alien Autopsy. The unseen Emily Birsan sang sensitively as did Kiri Deonarine in her 1960s’ dishwasher commercial housewife take on the Dew Fairy. As the gingerbread children that Hansel and Gretel bring back to life, the young singers of Anima provided somewhat variable vocalism.

Opening night had few glitches but in places felt and looked underrehearsed. Taking over stage direction duties Eric Einhorn’s blocking was fitfully awkward, as with the congested handling of the dinner dream scene. Jennifer Tipton’s excessively dark lighting in Act 2 made the fish-headed waiters and rubber-faced chef-angels nearly indiscernible even from the fourth row, and likely invisible from further back in the house.

I recall a heck of a lot more flour and pastry being flung about in this production’s celebrated food fight between the children and the witch a decade ago and it looked like that memorable set piece has been cost-effectively down-sized for this revival.

There aren’t many musicians who get a chance to make a Lyric Opera debut when they’ve only conducted a single opera before in their life. Ward Stare, 30, and the former principal trombone of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, showed a generally fluent and capable hand in the pit. Humperdinck’s Wagnerian richness and melodic warmth were only infrequently apparent under Stare’s trim, technocratic direction, though the lean approach suited the icy chill of this cold-hearted production.

Hansel and Gretel runs through January 19. lyricopera.org; 312-332-2244.

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