“Nibble, nibble, like a mouse – who is nibbling at my house?” As a preschooler, I used to giggle with glee when I would hear this quote from the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel. No doubt the story was dark, yet Eloise Wilkin’s delightful illustrations and the touching message of brother/sister love enticed me to return frequently to this beloved tale during nightly story time. Hence, I was incredibly delighted when I learned that Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera retelling of my favorite bedtime story was coming to Chicago, and with happy, vivid images of the Met’s wonderful 1982 production playing in my mind, I eagerly hastened to my seat in the Civic Opera House. Never did I suspect that I would witness a stark contrast to my expectations.

In this popular revisionist production which originated at Welsh National Opera, fairy-tale was drastically morphed into Freudian tale. No longer were brotherly/sisterly love and courage the core of the opera; rather, hunger – often in the form of graphic gluttony – and anti-poverty statements replaced the former as its message. All sentimentalism and magic – a core element of this favorite fairy-tale opera – was stripped, and the tale was re-located from the realm of tempting gingerbread houses, loving angels, and lavish German costumes into a foreboding and perilous post-World War II Europe full of poverty, familial dysfunction, faux vomiting, and even tree-headed child molesters – a move I found highly inappropriate considering that this production was heavily marketed as family fare. Although the production did migrate to a lighter, more family-friendly tone when the children entered the witch’s lair, the ensuing slapstick – excessive food-splatting and smearing resulting in a messy stage and soiled costumes – proved too over-the-top. In fact, I often felt like I was watching a conglomeration of vintage “War on Poverty” campaign commercials and Three Stooges shorts rather than an updated version of Hansel and Gretel.

Jill Grove in Hansel and Gretel © Dan Rest
Jill Grove in Hansel and Gretel
© Dan Rest

Character re-envisioning proved equally unconventional. Hansel and Gretel are no longer devoted, loving siblings with occasional quibbles, but rather selfish, soulless brats who did not succeed in winning my sympathy. Their parents are also greatly altered from simply poor folk stressed out by providing for their children. Father Peter is a moody drunk, while mother Gretchen is depressed and suicidal. To the utmost disappointment of me and many of those in the audience, the touching dream pantomime of fourteen guardian angels was replaced by fourteen pig-faced, winged chefs brandishing silver platters, reinforcing the revisionist message of hunger. While the chefs were certainly a clever way of envisioning angels bringing food to the children, their Muppet-like and chubby appearance dispelled any angelic vibes I could derive from them. Similarly, the witch as an evil Julia Child knockoff proved an unsuccessful parody measure, while the Sandman as a Gollum-style puppet proved more menacing than benevolent.

The singing and orchestra proved the saving grace and hallmark of this production. As always, Humperdinck’s music proved most gorgeous and uplifting. Under the baton of Ward Stare, the Lyric orchestra played with utmost emotion and flawless éclat, tenderly rendering each strain in such a way that, when I closed my eyes during the dream pantomime, I could genuinely see fourteen beautiful, golden-haired angels gently tucking Hansel and Gretel into a soft moss bed. In the title roles, Elizabeth DeShong and Maria Kanyova displayed sparkling and technically solid vocal skill, masterfully portraying gawky youngsters in their brilliant acting. Most entertaining, however, proved Jill Grove as the witch – who openly relished sloppily trashing the kitchen and plotting to fatten and bake the children into a crunchy confection.

In the end, I walked out of the Civic Opera House feeling unfulfilled. Outside of the excellent singing and orchestra work, this production was a letdown. While I have no problem with the modernization of fairy tales, I feel the more mature elements and overall dark nature of this production – as well as the distasteful slapstick – detracted greatly from overall enjoyment of the story. Yes, without a doubt, this story – like all Brothers Grimm stories – is “grim”, yet out of the darkness shines light and love. Hansel and Gretel trust in each other’s love, and in the end, that love conquers all as they defeat the wicked witch and return to their loving parents, who recognize that love and consequently change into more loving parents. The lack of any love – the core of the Hansel and Gretel story – and the Freudian twists within this revisionist production proved contrary to the original message of this endearing opera. Hence, I hope that fourteen angels will bring a sweet, traditional production – complete with the stellar singing and orchestra work of this production – to Chicago in the future.