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02 Feb 2013

A Timeless Hänsel und Gretel in Chicago

In remounting its 2001 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel Lyric Opera of Chicago has demonstrated the timeless nature of the score and narrative as well as the ingenuity of the production with its thoughtful and touching updating to a twentieth-century milieu.

The title roles were sung by Elizabeth DeShong and Maria Kanyova, the Mother and Father by Julie Makerov and Brian Mulligan, the Witch by Jill Grove, and the Sandman and Dew Fairy by Emily Birsan and Kiri Deonarine. Ward Stare led these performances in his Lyric Opera conducting debut.

In its performance of the overture the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Stare’s sensitive direction exemplified the rich colors and tonal depth of Humperdinck’s score. The initial chords for brass were effectively varied and, when repeated, punctuated by melodic emphases in the strings and percussion. Toward the close of this prelude the softer instrumental textures as here played suggested an age that would follow on the trials of human effort. During the course of the overture the stage was veiled by a scrim depicting an empty plate and utensils. Once the first act begins in this production, the significance of the image becomes clear. The children Hänsel and Gretel face each other while seated at the kitchen’s table. Both Ms. DeShong and Ms. Kanyova communicated a temperament of adolescent irritation coupled with human need. The children are hungry and their facial expressions revealed attempts to deal with their current isolation. The parents have gone off to procure food and have left Hänsel and Gretel with the responsibility of domestic chores. Of course little work is accomplished and their vocal exchanges were more expressive of self-amusement. After a tantalizing melisma performed on “Geheimnis” [“secret”] Kanyova’s Gretel instructed her brother in proper dance steps [“Einmal hin, einmal her”]. While DeShong’s Hänsel proclaimed in a truly joyful spirit that he was committed to “Tanzen und fröhlich sein” [“Dancing and happiness”], the antics of the children reached a crescendo from the floor to the top of the table. At this highpoint the mother returned and chided the two for their irresponsible behavior. Ms. Makerov released powerfully emotional pitches on “Sorgen” while describing these very worries caused by financial hardship. Since the children seem unable to appreciate the family’s plight, the mother sends them out to the forest in search of berries for an evening meal. When left alone Makerov gave full vent to her emotions with expressive yet controlled volume on “Kein Essen im Schrank” [“No food in the cupboard”]. As she prepared to take pills as a means to calming her mid-century nervousness, the voice of the father signals his approach in the familiar “Tra la la la … Hunger ist der beste Koch” [“Hunger is the best cook”]. Mr. Mulligan’s entrance was a model of lyrical and dramatic commitment to character. He sang with robust emphasis on “Kauf Besen” [“Buy brooms”] to explain how he encouraged his customers of the day to buy up his wares. As if to celebrate his financial success the father displayed the foodstuffs which he had purchased for the common meal. Once the parents begin to eat, the mother admits that she has sent the children out alone into the forest. The father berates her carelessness while frightening her with tales of evil in the haunted wood. Mulligan dominated the close of this first act with his noteworthy intonation describing the “Hexenritt” [“witches’ ride”] practiced in the forest.

The orchestral introduction to Act Two with an emphasis on cellos and higher strings matched the calming yet inquisitive mood in the forest as the children searched for and consumed the berries they found. DeShong’s Hänsel accused with striking low notes “Du bist selber schuld” [“It is really your fault”] as they discover that they have eaten their entire yield. After Hänsel claimed “Ich bin ein Bub und fürchte mich nicht” [I am a boy and am not afraid”], both children became apprehensive of their surroundings. In this production Hänsel assumes a protective gesture toward his sister as they sing their evening prayer “Abends will ich schlafen gehen” [“At night I lay myself to sleep”]. Kanyova and DeShong gave a wonderfully moving rendition of the duet, as the Sandmann then lulled them into sleep. The “two times seven angels,” to whom they have prayed, are here visualized in their dreams as servants and cooks at the table to which the children are invited after being helped into properly formal attire. At the close of the act Hänsel and Gretel are served as guests at table by these creatures with wings of angels.

The third act of the opera displays the plate on the scrim now covered more noticeably with red as indication of the berries consumed. Kanyova’s bird-like song with which she awakened Hänsel was sprightly and infused with coloratura touches. As the children compared notes about the angels seen in their respective dreams, an enormous cake emerged from the back of the stage. Gretel is the first to sample the cake until both children hear the voice of the witch, Rosina Leckermaul [aka, Rosina Sweet-tooth] In this role Jill Grove wore a housedress and embodied the busyness of a German domestic yet with the powers and desires associated with magic and evil. Grove caused Hänsel to freeze in movement with her chilling performance of the scene “Hocus, Pocus.” When she prepared food to fatten up the boy, Ms. Grove dived into her pots and bowls with gusto and noticeably energetic voice and arms. Gretel realizes that the magical phrase will release her brother, after which both push the witch into the oven. The subsequent, celebratory waltz for the siblings was well choreographed in preparation for saving the remaining children, who had been held as gingerbread under the witch’s spell. Recitation now of the “Hocus, Pocus” charm restores the children’s sight, the parents appear in the forest, and the family is reunited in prayers of thanksgiving. May future productions of Humperdinck’s work succeed to this degree.

Salvatore Calomino

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