Food, glorious food.
Quite a bit of the stuff gets flung, splattered and slopped around the stage by the end of Richard Jones' wickedly droll staging of "Hansel and Gretel," which returned to Lyric Opera Friday night at the Civic Opera House. The British director banishes the comfy sentimentality and gingerbread sweetness of Engelbert Humperdinck's operatic fairytale in favor of something decidedly more Grimm. The show is deliciously dark, full of theatrical whimsy, a different kind of holiday entertainment adults as well as today's hipper older kids can enjoy.
First presented here in 2001, this imaginative retooling of "Hansel and Gretel" is a co-production with the Welsh National Opera, where it proved to be one of the most admired productions of general director Anthony Freud's tenure, 13 years before he assumed the same title at Lyric. Since then the show has traveled to the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, proving its durability.
Lyric's revival smacks of old home week, with two of its Ryan Opera Center success stories, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong and soprano Maria Kanyova, taking the title roles, and Ward Stare, who once played principal trombone in the Lyric Orchestra before embarking on a fulltime podium career, making his Lyric conducting debut. All serve the best interests of Humperdinck's glorious score. So, in his way, does director Eric Einhorn, whose staging sticks to the Jones playbook, within John Macfarlane's witty sets and Jennifer Tipton's atmospheric lighting.
Hansel and Gretel are caged adolescents turned sullen and rebellious by hunger and poverty. Their mother (Julie Makerov) is a suicidal scold, their father (Brian Mulligan) a drunk. Their search for berries takes them from a drab 1950s kitchen to a surreal "forest" consisting of four supernumeraries with heads that sprout branches. The lost children proceed to smear each other with berry juice before falling into a deep slumber.
For the dream-pantomime, Hansel and Gretel imagine themselves sitting down to a formal banquet served by 14 chubby, angel-winged chefs, dressed in identical white aprons and toques, and a Magritte-style maitre d' with a fish-head for a head. It's the show's most emblematic and touching scene. DeShong and Kanyova blended voices beautifully here, their singing cushioned by the mellifluous sonorities Stare coaxed from the orchestra.
Having adhered to a serious tone up to now, the production takes a turn for the funny-macabre for the final scene in the Witch's (Jill Grove) lair, a stainless-steel industrial kitchen piled high with fancy desserts. The cackling crone has a penchant for tasty children and does her best to fatten up her captives with the gooey confections. All three wind up a sticky mess, along with the stage. After seeing this show, audience members may think twice about going for that extra helping of plum pudding at Christmas time.
Friday's performance took a scene or two to hit its musical and dramatic stride. DeShong needed time for her rich voice to fully blossom, but she had the acting chops to believably convey Hansel's physical awkwardness and mental cleverness.
Kanyova (who, incidentally, had doubled as the Sandman and Dew Fairy in Lyric's previous "Hansel and Gretel") tried to minimize the disadvantage of her height by making Gretel's movements gangly and angular, but I felt she overdid it in the horseplay of the opening scene. However, she, too, sang strongly, and both Kanyova and DeShong commanded enough vocal heft to comfortably ride the score's rich orchestration.
Grove, so powerful earlier this season as another crazed villainess, Klytemnestra in Strauss' "Elektra," was an absolute hoot here. Her strong dramatic mezzo allowed her to move easily between the Witch's cajolery and the gleeful yelps she emitted when she beheld Hansel helplessly trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey ready for the oven. Grove threw herself gamely into the food fight, actually drawing applause from the audience when Gretel pushed the Witch into her own oven.
Makerov, in her Lyric debut, and Mulligan brought such fine voices and sure dramatic instincts to the opening scene that you wished Humperdinck had given the kids' parents more to sing.
Two current members of the Ryan Center, sopranos Emily Birsan and Kiri Deonarine, were admirable in the supporting roles of the Sandman and Dew Fairy. Birsan sang brightly while operating a wizened marionette. Deonarine hilariously impersonated a perky blond hostess straight out of a '50s dishwashing-liquid commercial.
Stare brought a firm sense of rhythmic impulse to the music, drawing floods of warm, well-blended playing from his former orchestral colleagues. At times his youthful enthusiasm pushed the players rather hard, but there were no obvious lapses in coordination between pit and stage, and he made the orchestra a well-defined presence in the drama. Members of Anima – Young Singers of Greater Chicago did well as the gingerbread children brought back to life after the Witch's demise.
Lyric Opera's production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" plays through Jan. 19 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $32-$239; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org.