Review “Hänsel und Gretel”

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
When: through Jan. 19
Phone: 312-332-2244

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Fairy tales are an entertaining way of teaching children lessons, often laced with moral instruction. Lyric Opera is now offering a particularly entertaining version of the famous story of “Hänsel und Gretel” in the form of the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck.

This opera stands or falls on the performances of the two title characters, who have the lion’s share of the singing and stage time, and Lyric has found two splendid singers to bring to life this story of hungry and impetuous children.

Soprano Maria Kanyova is an engaging Gretel, splendid of voice with ringing high notes. Her movements are at times more contrived than childlike, but her energy is infectious.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong offers a notably strong portrayal of Hänsel, boy-like and full of hustle and bustle. She sings with ease and knows how prance about in the guise of a child.

The two of them interact well, offering a convincing view of a children’s world of tantrums and terrors. Their duets are balanced and pretty, and their affection for each other is rendered with joy.

All the supporting singers are pleasing as well. Julie Makerov — in her Lyric Opera debut — is convincing as a harried mother who is at the end of her wits, desperate because the family’s aching poverty makes every meal a chancy proposition. The father is buoyantly portrayed by Brian Mulligan, whose first aria is delivered with flair, establishing his character as a jovial, loving fellow, a man ever-ready to raise the spirits of his family.

Jill Grove makes her role debut as the witch, and infuses it with wacky malevolence. She embraces all the slapstick elements of the production, demented dances and all. She wears her roly-poly fat suit well, and uses her fake girth to humorous effect. Her sound is bold and brash, creating a witchy atmosphere in her master chef stainless steel kitchen.

The children’s chorus is merely adequate, sung by members of the pretentiously named Anima – Young Singers of Greater Chicago (formerly known as the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus). They are often hard to hear and are strangely organized on stage so that shorter singers are in the back of taller ones.

This is the same Richard Jones production that premiered at Lyric in the 2001-02 season. Some of its baggage is no more convincing now than it was the first time. The family’s home is drab and features modern plumbing and a fridge, so we are left scratching our heads as to why a family with nothing but a small pitcher of milk for food would keep it on a shelf rather than safely ensconced in their Coldpoint. The mother toys with pills in a scene annoyingly meant to suggest possible suicidal thoughts.

It makes sense to create a claustrophobic environment for a poor family’s home, but why the forest is similarly tiny is unfathomable. The surrealism of the second act is interesting, but at times distractingly unclear. Men in suits have tree heads and when Hänsel plunders them for fruit you are put in mind of a mugging. Is this meant to convey that the rich must be forced to help the poor? Or that human existence necessarily must destroy nature? Your guess is as good as mine.

The dream sequence, with a dozen pigs in chef’s garb accented with wings, in place of angels, is amusing, but the ridiculously slow pace at which they move seems less like a dream and more like a bureaucratic nightmare.

The good news is that the opera moves along quickly under the steady guidance of conductor Ward Stare, and that even children can find much entertainment in the slightly more than two hours it takes for this production to unfold.