Opera Review: HANSEL AND GRETEL (Lyric Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on January 28, 2023

in Music,Theater-Chicago


Boasting a beautiful score, a fun-filled plot, and a handful of incredibly talented singer-actors, Hansel and Gretel is this season’s family-friendly opera. Any child who doesn’t mind reading supertitles and can sit still for two hours and twenty minutes minus the twenty-five-minute intermission will have a blast watching this adaptation of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Just make sure their stomach is full because this show is all about food.

Samantha Hankey Heidi StoberDenis Vélez Heidi Stober, Samantha Hankey

Hansel and Gretel is Engelbert Humperdinck’s first and most popular opera, which premiered in 1893. It owes much to Richard Wagner musically, but without Wagner’s heaviness of subject matter and seriousness of tone. Act One begins with the eponymous children playing in the kitchen and avoiding chores. When they break a full milk jug that is the family’s only nourishment, their mother sends them into the woods to pick strawberries. What starts as fun soon turns to mild fright as the children realize they’re lost. The Sandman puts them to sleep and they dream of a feast-laden table set by angels. In the final act, Hansel and Gretel stumble upon a gingerbread house and a witch determined to eat them, but they manage to kill her first before their parents come to the rescue.

Denis Vélez, Heidi Stober, Samantha HankeyHeidi Stober

First seen at Lyric in 2001, this production now returns for the third time. It even includes Jill Grove, who reprises the role of the Witch that she played ten years ago in the second production. Originally directed by Richard Jones and revived by Eric Einhorn, it is easy to see why this Hansel and Gretel production has proved so popular. The children have fun in every scene, but especially in Act Three when they make a colossal mess by gleefully throwing platters of food at the wall.

Samantha Hankey, Heidi Stober, Jill Grove

Set and costume designer John Macfarlane gives everything a drab, post-war appearance, apart from the dream sequence of Act Two. For this reason alone I think the production should be retired, since it would benefit from an explosion of color that would make it more fantastic and attractive, especially to children. And his sets, which feel too small for the vast Lyric stage, could be more expansive. His curtain paintings of empty plates and open mouths, however, work effectively to signal plot developments and transition between sets.

Heidi Stober and Company

Hansel and Gretel is quite singular in that Humperdinck wrote the majority of its roles for women; indeed, there is only one for a man, perfectly filled by Alfred Walker in his Lyric debut. As Father, Walker uses his rich, powerful bass-baritone to full effect. The other Lyric debut in this production is Samantha Hankey as Hansel. She wears her short pants well in this boy role alongside Heidi Stober’s Gretel. Their mezzo and soprano voices are beautifully clear and light, singing the roles of children with plausibility and panache. But it’s their acting that really makes this production a delight to behold, for they not only have great chemistry, but energy and humor in abundance.

Samantha Hankey and Heidi Stober

Music Director Emeritus Sir Andrew Davis conducts with his usual charm and cheer. Uniting Voices Chicago (formerly Chicago Children’s Choir) helps bring down the house during the finale, when Gretel breaks the witch’s spell and the children come back to life. It’s a splendid ending to a most enjoyable opera that is now one of my favorites. I can’t wait to introduce my own children to Hansel and Gretel when they are a bit older. Stay tuned for the world premiere of The Factotum on February 3.

Alfred Walker, Alexandra LoBianco

photos by Cory Weaver

Le Comte Ory
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on February 23, 2023
for tickets, call 312.332.2244 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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