Lyric Opera’s darkly Freudian “Hansel and Gretel” returns in worthy revival

Thu Jan 26, 2023 at 1:39 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Samantha Hankey and Heidi Stober (left and right) in the title roles of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at Lyric Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel made a largely successful return to the Lyric Opera Wednesday night, in a revival of Richard Jones’s Welsh National Opera production. This was the third appearance of this staging in Chicago and the first in a decade since its 2001 debut.

Jones’s vision can be summed up in one word: hunger. Hansel and Gretel don’t merely pop strawberries into their mouths; they guzzle them with abandon and smear themselves with blood-red juices. One of the curtains is a giant picture of the Witch’s open mouth, through which a cake is extended in Act III on a tongue-shaped pallet. And the angels in the “Dream Pantomime” who gather round the title characters to safeguard them from the forest’s menace are replaced by chefs, who lay out a feast that causes the children to dance with gluttonous joy.

The Lyric revival is directed by Eric Einhorn, who retains the flavor of the original, with a little more lightness than past directors brought. The Mother doesn’t vomit into the sink quite as violently. The Witch throws baking ingredients into the air with more slapstick abandon.

Although Lyric’s performances are sung in the original German, the surtitles project David Pountney’s archly rhymed English couplets (which were used in Jones’s production) rather than a literal translation. Perhaps this was done because the action and props were tailored to Pountney’s droll but loose word choices. (For rhyming reasons, the Witch threatens to cook Gretel in a fish-kettle, which she digs out of her overstocked abattoir-like kitchen, courtesy of set and costume designer John Macfarlane.) The free translations did make for occasionally jarring listening, however, when what was sung did not match the screen. 

The current production is anchored by vibrant and polished performances by Samantha Hankey and Heidi Stober, as Hansel and Gretel respectively. 

Stober’s singing was the purer of the two, with unstrained and dynamically rich acrobatics at the top of Act III (all while energetically dancing), But Hankey’s performance was nimble and expressive as well They both summoned a suitably childlike freshness of timbre, without descending into cutesy caricature. Their physical acting was just as good—their strides gawky, their squabbling believably sibling-like.

Jill Grove as The Witch in Hansel and Gretel. Photo: Cory Weaver

Alexandra LoBianco’s performance as the Mother was not at the same level. Her dark tone suited the Mother’s initial weariness, but not the rapture at the food her husband has brought home. Alfred Walker’s Father was better—hearty of voice at his entrance, then appropriately fearful as he describes the Witch. Denis Vélez’s timbre is an odd fit for the Dew Fairy—not as bright as one expects for the role—but she sang appealingly nonetheless. The chorus of echoes was fittingly creepy, and the children’s chorus was convincingly gleeful with silverware in hand, prepared to tuck into the Witch’s blackened corpse.

The Witch, played by Jill Grove, is the production’s main impediment. In the name of characterization, her singing was a mélange of whooping, scooping, sliding, and barking—seemingly anything to make sure as few pitches as possible landed on target. A little of this can successfully convey the Witch’s grotesqueness but  wouldn’t sweeter singing make her enticement more plausible? Grove’s degree of excess this time around was ultimately unmusical.

Making a welcome reappearance in the pit was Lyric’s former music director Sir Andrew Davis, whom general director Anthony Freud announced Wednesday night had just been appointed music director emeritus. Davis brought out all the colors of Humperdinck’s delightful orchestration, eliciting characterful playing from the orchestra’s woodwinds, in particular. His swift pacing fit Hansel and Gretel’s friskiness. The only minor drawback was that some of the score’s spirituality—such as in the prayer at the opera’s conclusion—was lost in the process.

Hansel and Gretel runs through February 5.

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2 Responses to “Lyric Opera’s darkly Freudian “Hansel and Gretel” returns in worthy revival”

  1. Posted Jan 26, 2023 at 3:07 pm by Philip A Kraus

    This production was terrible in 2001 and it’s still terrible now. It’s ugly and doesn’t fit the music. Why do opera companies feel the need to muck up a classic like Hansel and Gretel?

  2. Posted Feb 21, 2023 at 12:54 am by Jefferson Andrews

    Agree wholeheartedly with your review other than to say that LoBianco clearly was not ready to return from her sabbatical.

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