Hänsel und Gretel is a tricky opera. It can be remorselessly grim or it can all too easily descend into kitsch. Joel Ivany’s approach, in his production at the Canadian Opera Company, attempts to avoid the pitfalls by removing most of the fairy tale elements and giving the piece a setting in an apartment building in contemporary Toronto. The basic idea is that the parents and the “community” are using the device of the witch and so on to scare the children about the consequences of their errant behaviour. So, the witch is the building’s caretaker, the Sandman and the Dew Fairy are the guy who hoards stuff and so on. Like many concept productions, it has a lot of good ideas but also more than a few threads that don’t really get tied up. How does this dirt poor couple stage such an elaborate charade? Why do the children think they are lost in the forest? Ivany made his name with “transladaptations”; English versions of well known operas where he was free to change the libretto where needed to meet the concept. Here he is stuck with the original words and the task proves harder, even when the surtitles sometimes reflect the dramaturgy rather than the actual German.

Simone Osborne (Gretel), Emily Fons (Hänsel) and Michael Colvin (Witch)
© Michael Cooper

There’s much to like though. The production leans heavily on videos made in conjunction with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and they are dramatically effective and lovely to look at. The opera opens with an aerial shot of the Four Seasons Centre and then pans and backs away taking us in a journey to the Toronto suburbs where our apartment block is located. Later videos are used to create the forest and the night sky that exist in the children’s imagination. The night sky, spilling over into the auditorium, is gorgeous and unlike anything one would ever see within 200km of Toronto! The set too is clever. It’s a two level affair with each level divided up into “apartments”. This allows for some sense of the different things happening in different parts of the building and provides spaces for explicatory action aside from the main plot line. The director does seem to feel though that something must be happening in every space all the time which can be a bit distracting. Overall it’s probably one of those productions that’s best not over thought. Approached with a child’s sense of wonder, it can be enjoyed for what it is; an imaginatively staged cautionary tale.

The standard of the performances is high. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Wagner-influenced piece in many ways it’s the orchestra and Johannes Debus in the pit who shine brightest. There is some sumptuous playing underlaid by a sense of deep structure. Of the singers, Russell Braun, as ever, throws himself into the role of Peter, the father, with a strong singing performance and some excellent comic acting. He’s well matched by Krisztina Szabó as the mother. She’s a bit less sinister than some (the odd cut in the libretto about threats to beat the kids etc) so doesn’t have as much to work with as some Gertrudes but comes over well and is vocally secure. The children, Emily Fons as Hänsel and Simone Osborne as Gretel, are really very childlike. The body language is extremely well managed and Simone in particular really looks like an eight-year-old. Both are vocally well up to the challenges and the Evening Prayer is appropriately touching. 

Michael Colvin’s witch is great fun. He’s more comic than sinister though his entrance is creepy enough and his flying off into the night on a vacuum cleaner is one of the better visual jokes of the piece. Anna Sophie Neher doubles as a very peculiar looking Sandman and Dew Fairy. She sings beautifully and her physical acting is a bit weird, but it’s supposed to be. The Canadian Children’s Opera Company provide the youthful chorus in the last act with their customary professionalism. All in all, it’s a top notch effort musically and in the acting department.

Joel Ivany is pretty well known to Toronto audiences as a director of “indie”opera and site specific shows. This is his first time creating a main stage production from scratch for the COC and his approach is brimming with ambition. There are lots of good ideas and when they didn’t quite work they were still interesting. Audience reaction was telling. There was some puzzlement but none of the fulmination that concept productions often provoke in Toronto. Hänsel und Gretel is a pretty decent night at the opera and perhaps a pointer to bigger and better things to come from Ivany.