Once upon a time... no, this is as much a story by the Brothers Grimm about the power of mutual trust as can be told today, as it was in 1893 when Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel was premiered in Weimar, under the baton of none other than Richard Strauss.

Hansel and Gretel
© Houston Grand Opera

For Houston Grand Opera, director Lileana Blain-Cruz and her designer Hanna Wasileski have set the story in the Big Thicket – a highly biodiverse semi-tropical forest in East Texas. Wasileski's designs have the look and feel of being charmingly hand-drawn. The entire opera is set in "green screen", the final effect one of real figures populating an animated background – something quite novel for an entire opera.

Hansel and Gretel live in a very modest hut, with torn wallpaper and mice running about. Their torn jeans and overalls (costume designer Montana Levi Blanco) are not the fashionable kind found in high street stores. They are alone at home, hungry and conjuring up cloud formations to look like donuts and ice cream cones. Mezzo Sun-Ly Pierce as Hansel and soprano Raven McMillon as Gretel have such similarly coloured voices, it is often difficult to distinguish them. Mezzo Lindsay Kate Brown is a Mother Getrude overwhelmed with the burden of poverty. Baritone Blake Denson as Father Peter is a drunken plastic brush seller with a heart of gold. In keeping with updating the story, the bagful of groceries the father brings home from the local supermarket includes a six-pack of beer, sliced white bread and packaged hot dogs.

Raven McMillon (Gretel) and Sun-Ly Pierce (Hansel)
© Houston Grand Opera

When Hansel and Gretel get sent out, they encounter crocodiles and snakes in the mysterious marshes of the bayou before coming to a dell where soprano Elena Villalón as a melancholy Sandman strews sleepy dust on their eyelids. The fourteen angels that appear in their dream are their ancestors – tribal chiefs, slaves, ladies in fancy dresses, gents in formal attire, nurses with babes in arms – flying through the star-studded heavens. A heaven where there is no poverty, no racial or class discrimination and presumably no gender inequality.

Richard Trey Smagur (Witch)
© Houston Grand Opera

Come morning, the forest has lost its terror. Birds, butterflies and the dew fairy (also sung by Villalón) awaken Hansel and Gretel to a halo of exotic flowers. Beyond is a tree-lined road leading to the antebellum-styled mansion of the witch, decorated with candy cane columns and colorful cakes. This witch, sung by tenor Richard Trey Smagur with gusto, is stylishly gussied-up in a fancy black and white gown and a walking stick with the hilt in the form of a child's head, which transforms into a broom to take her on a rambunctious joyride through a psychedelic sky. Back on earth, the clever children push the witch into the oven, causing billows of smoke to make seven children of different ethnic groups appear in the aftermath. With blinded eyes, they stand immobile until touched by Hansel and Gretel, the touch of love that gives life and sight. Even Sir David Pountney, whose witty and musical translation is used, kept the verbatim German text of the final words “When in dark despair God will surely hear your prayer”.

Sun-Ly Pierce (Hansel) and Raven McMillon (Gretel)
© Houston Grand Opera

So full of visual details is this made-for-digital production, that the evergreen musical score becomes the foundation upon which everything is based, but does not stand out. This is by no means a detraction. On the contrary, the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, conducted by its music director Patrick Summers, is to be commended for the excellent rendition of this classic. Especially, too, the fact that the entire cast – with the exception of Richard Trey Smagur – are graduates of the HGO Studio speaks highly of the artistic and musical standard of its young artist program.

A production like this, conceived and produced purely for the digital screen, takes just as much work and effort as one for the real stage. Maybe this production is a good example of the pandemic's silver lining: reimagining a classic and making it accessible to young and old all over the world.

This performance was reviewed from the Marquee TV video stream