Based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale, this beloved Englebert Humperdinck opera with its familiar childlike melodies has often been performed as a saccharine tale of faith and the kindness of guardian angels around the Christmas holidays. It is often cookie-cutter and lazy in every way. The new production at the Lyric is decidedly not that, leaning in to the Grimmer aspects of the story like poverty, starvation, child endangerment and cannibalism. It’s a great time at the theatre!
But the thing you notice even more about this production than the visual design is how hard it goes. Especially every single one of the performers. They are not there to play. They are giving their all to both the simple folk-music-inspired melodies and the epic Wagnerian sections equally. And everything is sustained with an energy that is, frankly, astonishing.
Led by two of the most convincing adults-playing-children I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness, Samantha Hankey in her Lyric debut as Hansel, and Heidi Stober as the ever-on-the-move incipient witch Gretel, they capture the childrens’ naughtiness, playfulness, fear, faith, cleverness and courage by turns. Their singing is individually exceptional, but the way they blend is an absolute poem. It is worth the price of admission to hear them sing together.
This incredible production by Richard Jones directed by Eric Einhorn is like if Hansel and Gretel was production designed by Gerald Scarfe, the animator of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and that’s all to the good. Its grotesque imagery with splashes of bloody red in a mostly gray production and the use of a gaping maw to great effect underscores both the children’s starvation and the witch’s insatiable appetite.
Alexandra LoBianco and Alfred Walker as Mother and Father bring both comedy and pathos to their roles and sing them wonderfully. Denis Velez doubles as the Little Sandman and Dew Fairy and is both creepy and radiant by turns.
Jill Grove as the witch is having so much fun. She is the best, demented Julia Child that ever ruled a kitchen. Or Julia Child by way of Ursula from The Little Mermaid. She sings wonderfully while doing superb physical comedy and you can believe the house is made of confectionary at the convincing way she chews every bit of scenery. Brava!
While this version is credited as always to Adelheid Wette, Engelbert Humperdink’s sister, who did write the original opera, the English translation here was wildly different than the one we all learned as children, very much to the good. It has a much more modern feel that works very well in this production and is beautifully rhymed.
The set and costumes by John MacFarlane are exceptional and retro-modern or wildly surrealist. Standouts are the entire dream ballet costumes, the trees, and claustrophobic box representing the dreamscape and forest as well as the witch’s industrial commercial kitchen with glass door oven.
The Lyric Orchestra was superbly conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, who returns for his first operatic production since he retired as Lyric’s Music Director in 2021. As always he teased out musical lines you have never noticed before despite how many times you’ve heard the score and each emphasis added to the production. The whole opera was sonically superb. During the opening night, Sir Andrew was named the Lyric’s Music Director Emeritus.
It’s only playing until Feb. 5th. Go and see it at once. Tickets are available at the Lyric Opera Box Office.
Photos by Cory Weaver
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