Do not, I implore you, take younger children to see Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel.”
Perhaps middle schoolers upwards, but not the little ones.
It is a frightening, occasionally grotesque staging of this fairy tale, which, full disclosure, I could never read to my own children because in the original version the impoverished mother dispatches her children to starve in the forest!
In this version, the desperate mother sends the pair off to gather wild strawberries, and when the father learns they have gone to the haunted forest, he and she dash off to find them. So that is slightly better, but the visuals—the cold metal walls that frame every scene, even in the forest—are stark and disturbing. And the curtains for scene changes are painted with an blood-red open mouth, as in-your-face as any German Expressionistic painting
The staging, however, cannot diminish the beauty of the voices or the pristine performance of the opera’s luscious score by the orchestra, under the baton of Ward Stare, making an impressive Lyric conducting debut.
Hansel is sung by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong and Gretel by soprano Maria Kanyova, both alums of the Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center.
DeShong mimics a lad so deftly you’ll find yourself checking the program to be sure this is really a trouser role. And the petite Kanyova plays Gretel as if she has ADHD, never still for a moment. Their voices blend as beautifully as real siblings.
The dance number is delightful and their evening prayer is sublime.
The father is sung with gusto by American baritone Brian Mulligan and American soprano Julie Makerov has the thankless role of the struggling mother.
The lively Dew Fairy is second year Ryan Opera Center soprano Kiri Deonarine, who seems to be channelling Doris Day, while the Sandman is sung by soprano Emily Birsan. Both are second year Ryan Opera Center members. On stage, however, the Sandman is represented by a skinny puppet, which despite Birsan’s glowing voice, is creepy looking in the extreme.
It is only in the final act, set in the witch’s kitchen, that real humor explodes. Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, obviously relishing her evil role, is not only a powerful singer, but a masterful comedienne, tossing pots, pans and food over her shoulders like Julia Child gone mad.
But forget the bewitched children as gingerbread cookies. They are represented by straw figures, materializing in a seamless sequence as the sweet sounding members of Anima—Young Singers of Greater Chicago, formerly the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus. They are all clad in straw-colored clothing, an effective, but somber touch.
Go for the music — you’ll recognize most of the melodies. Go for the voices, every one is superior. But leave the little ones at home. This production has many moments grimmer than Grimm.
Matinee and evening performances of Lyric’s “Hansel und Gretel” run through January 19 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. For information and tickets, visit their website.