United States Humperdinck, Hänsel und Gretel:Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Anima: Young Singers of Greater Chicago, Ward Stare (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 11.1.2013 (JLZ)
Gretel: Maria Kanyova
Hänsel: Elizabeth DeShong
Mother: Julie Makerov
Father: Brian Mulligan
Sandman: Emily Birsan
Dew Fairy: Kiri Deonarine
Witch: Jill Grove
Conductor: Ward Stare
Original Production: Richard Jones
Director: Eric Einhorn
Set and Costume Designer: John MacFarlane
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton
Children’s Chorus Master: Emily Ellsworth
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 Hänsel und Gretel brings to mind all the reasons to enjoy this venerable work in any season, not just during the winter holidays. Given the uniformly excellent cast, along with superb music and stage direction, the performance was fresh and exciting—as opera should be. The singers made this familiar fairy tale effective through their musical facility and dramatic timing. The sense of foreboding that the children perceive is convincing, and when they deal with the witch it’s both humorous and genuinely appealing. The lack of condescension or slapstick also adds to the evening—from young children perhaps hearing their first opera, to longstanding Lyric patrons.
The title characters are outstanding. As Hänsel, Elizabeth DeShong is vocally stunning, addressing the score with note-perfect accuracy and a fine characterization of a young boy. Her diction was consistently clear—she sounded like a native German speaker—and the first act duets with Gretel were nicely balanced so that solo lines emerged effortlessly. In the third act, DeShong’s low range was nicely executed, with full sound and matching declamation. Maria Kanvoya’s Gretel was similarly effective—technically impeccable, her childlike qualities matching her accuracy. In the second act, Kanyova was also wonderful, especially in the family prayer “Abends, will ich schlafen gehn.”
Casting Jill Grove as the witch was an inspired decision. A consummate performer in many serious roles, Grove combines her usual musical excellence with superb comic timing to create an appealing villain. Updating the setting to the twentieth century allowed the witch’s kitchen to have all sorts of modern devices to use in playing the culinary murderess. The presence of standing mixers and other utensils added to the gleeful portrayal, completed by Grove’s rich voice and strong stage presence. With a performance like this, it was sad to see her inevitable demise.
Likewise, the parents were cast with fine singers. Julie Makerov gave a convincing performance of the mother, using vocal intonations and physical gestures to produce a sense of desperation in the first act. Within seconds of her entrance, the audience had a clear sense of character. As the father, Brian Milligan used his rich and flexible baritone voice to excellent effect. He was vocally appealing from the start, making sense of the anxious, if not distraught father. When he and the mother return at the end of the third act, Mulligan’s voice commanded the drama.
In addition, Emily Birsan was the Sandman (as puppeteer), and this aspect of the production mitigated the use of female voices for nominally male roles. Birsan’s short part was perfect. Similarly Kiri Deonarine gave a polished performance as the Dew Fairy, a maid. The updating of the story to the twentieth century did not preclude supernatural elements, like the human trees in the first part of the second act and the chef-angels at its conclusion. The frog costumes for the waiters added to the whimsy, as did the Dew Fairy donning bright yellow gloves to prepare the world for a clean and spotless morning. The emphasis on the kitchen for the witch’s scene not only drew on the theme of hunger and feeding, which is part of the Grimms’ story from the start, but also allowed the various culinary tools to lend a sense of familiarity to the Grove’s “Hocus, pocus” passages.
Ward Stare brought elegance to the orchestra, which he led with clear vision and a fine ear. His attention to the details in the pit matched the nuances on stage, and he managed to blend the brass well, and also brought out the delicate string writing. Humperdinck’s sonorities rang richly, while tempos never lagged.
James L. Zychowicz