Review: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Is a Feast for the Senses at Lyric Opera

What do you get when you mix Englebert Humperdinck, a visual homage to German expressionism, Weimar decadence, and gorgeous singing? The answer is Hansel and Gretel at the Lyric Opera. This telling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale is how I remember it with evil hags and crafty gnomes luring wayward children into castle towers and gingerbread houses. This revival at Lyric is directed by Eric Einhorn, who has a deft hand at giving the characters a wide berth within the expressionistic set design by John McFarlane. It's Grimm meets F.W. Murnau's Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). This production also brings Sir Andrew Davis back to the Lyric. He has been appointed Music Director Emeritus, a well-deserved honor. Sir Andrew is a delight to watch and exudes the joy that he takes in the music as he conducts.

Samantha Hankey and Heidi Strober Photo by Cory Weaver.

This Hansel and Gretel is set in modern times with appliances such as a refrigerator and stove but in a moody monochromatic grayscale set. Every wall and window is a trapezoid denoting an alternative consciousness and fever dream state. Mezzosoprano Samantha Hankey performs Hansel with body language akin to Dennis the Menace, and she sings the role beautifully and is a perfect accompaniment to Heidi Strober as Gretel. Strober's soprano is velvety, hitting the highest notes with crystalline purity. She portrays a perfect 9-year-old girl so well that you forget that Strober is an acclaimed and world-famous singer. Both Hankey and Strober are nimble and great actors as well. They embody the bickering and naughty children from the fairy tale as they skitter about the set pulling pranks on each other.

Mother is played by soprano Alexandra LoBianco with a naturalistic flair. She arrives home finding that her children have done none of their chores as she toils away at a low-pay job. LoBianco has a great voice and performs well in a relatively small part. Father is sung by bass-baritone Alfred Walker with a comic edge to his drunken character. His voice is rich with smooth navigation of the German lyrics that can lean sharp and guttural in less able singers. Walker makes his entrance trying to climb through a tiny window and then uses the door, as the victor with the spoils of war—aka food. He provides a good example of naturalistic acting and direction when he tells Mother of the witch's appetite for young flesh, and Mother goes to the concrete sink and visibly throws up. Many moments in Hansel and Gretel lean into Weimar decadence and Dadaism.

The Lyric ensemble. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The children have wandered into a haunted wood that is populated by trees, which are men in suits with twisted branches for heads. Hansel picks berries from their pockets and heads and eats all of them with Gretel. When the woods go dark the Sandman appears sung by Denis Vélez who also sings the Dew Fairy role. Vélez's voice is otherworldly, and is seen only as a puppet figure similar to Gollum from Lord of the Rings. (It was also fun to see a puppet on stage while we're seeing so much puppet theater during the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.) The Dew Fairy is all light in baby blue as she whips on rubber gloves and washes the dishes from the feast of the 14 angels and the fish head maître d'.

MacFarlane's set design is a character in itself, especially in the second act. The children wake up from a luxurious meal to find they have dreamt the same scenario; they stand before a wall with a red gaping mouth and a lurid pink tongue. When the famous gingerbread house appears, Hankey and Strober gorge themselves on the goodies when they hear, "nibble, nibble little mousey." It must have been the wind, they think.

Samantha Hankey and Heidi Strober Photo by Cory Weaver.

Mezzosoprano Jill Grove brings the Witch alive as the decadently voluptuous and deceptively kind old lady. The Witch sets an evil banquet out for the children in a kitchen lined with life-sized dolls and huge appliances—like the oven on which she paints a smiley face with icing. Grove uses her witch's broom as a rotisserie skewer for an enchanted and frozen Hansel. Poor Hansel is like a goose being force-fed through a funnel to harvest foie gras. Grove is delightful as she sings what a delicacy young girls are and buries Hansel's face in her exaggerated bosom.

The dolls are enchanted children waiting to be fattened and roasted. They come to life and sing angelically (credit to Uniting Voices Chicago—formerly Chicago Children's Choir—under the direction of Josephine Lee.)

Humperdinck was heavily influenced by Richard Wagner and worked with him on Parsifal. (Humperdinck's "Witch's Ride" is considered a variant on Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries.") Humperdinck's music is multilayered with several Wagnerian high drama phrases. Interesting fact: librettist Adelheid Wette was Humperdinck's sister. She is responsible for taking some of the Grimm out. Humperdinck was not a prolific composer in his own right but was a highly coveted teacher of music.

Samantha Hankey, Heidi Strober and Jill Grove Photo by Cory Weaver.

The story of Hansel and Gretel is a textbook Hero's Journey when they battle the evil characters and learn about their own inner strength and wit to make their way back home. Fairy tale witches were the stuff of nightmares and that was the point. The stories were meant as morality tales: Always obey your parents and be pious in all things. I like this take on it, where the children use their intelligence more than convenient piety. It is great fun with brilliant music played exquisitely. The singers are the full package of great voices and full-tilt acting. Everyone is having a great time on the Lyric stage and I highly recommend that you get in on the fun.

Hansel and Gretel plays for 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission. It continues with four performances through February 3 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Please visit the website for performance times, tickets, and more information.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.