by Lynn on February 18, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Composed by Englebert Humperdinck

In collaboration with his sister Adelheid

Conducted by Johannes Debus

Directed by Joel Ivany

Set and projections by S. Katy Tucker

Costumes designed by Ming Wong

Lighting by JAX Messenger

Price Family Chorus Master, Sandra Horst

Cast: Russell Braun

Michael Colvin

Emily Fons

Anna-Sophie Neher

Simone Osborne

Krisztina Szabó

A bizarre concept that is not supported by the story.

Note: As with my other ‘opera’ reviews I am reviewing this as theatre. I won’t comment on the singing or orchestra (which sounded dandy to me) because opera-music-singing-is not my forte. Theatre is. The lovely people of the Canadian Opera Company welcome another point of view of their art form. This review is also an extended version of the on air radio review I did for “Classical Underground” with Philip Conlon on Wed. Feb. 12.

The Story. The opera is based on the fairy tale by the Brother’s Grimm, which is pretty dark. To give a short overview: Hansel and Gretel are brother and sister. There is a wicked step-mother and a hapless father. They are very, very hungry. The wicked step-mother sent the children into the woods to find strawberries to bring back to eat. The father realizes it’s dangerous out there what with the witch who lives there. The kids see a magical house made of candy, cookies and gingerbread. This is where the witch lives. She sees Hansel and Gretel and wants to bake them and eat them. (I said it was dark). The witch tries to coerce Gretel into the big stove but she outfoxes the witch and pushes the witch into the oven. This releases other lost children and all is good.

Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid thought this tale was too dark so she softened it by creating the Dew Fairy and the Sandman who watch over the children while they are sleeping in the woods. There is also no wicked step-mother as well, just a harried mother.   

The Production. Director Joel Ivany sets this story in Toronto today. S. Katy Tucker has created a slow projected panoramic view of the city (projected on the back of the set) as it pulls away from the opera house, east and north. The CN Tower is in the background. The expanse of the city sprawls out. I found it very moving. I wondered where we were in the city? Scarborough? In any case the action takes place in an apartment block, utilitarian, concrete, grey, dispiriting-kudos to S. Katy Tucker. A wall that covers the various floors of the block pulls away revealing Hansel and Gretel playing on the floor of their kitchen. Other apartments are revealed on other floors and to the sides of Hansel and Gretel’s place. We see activity in other apartments. Interesting.

Hansel and Gretel should be binding bundles of materials to make brooms but they are playing instead. Their harried mother, Gertrude, yells at them for dawdling. In her anger she breaks the jug that has milk in it. It splashes all over the floor. There is nothing to eat as a result. Nothing. She sends Hansel and Gretel into the woods to find strawberries to bring back.

In the meantime Peter, the father, arrives with a box of food. He has sold all the brooms and had money for food. But he gets anxious when he learns the children have gone to the woods for food. The witch is there. The children can be seen in the corridor outside their apartment looking on the floor for something. I am mystified. Is this the woods? Are they looking for strawberries there? The children then go from apartment to apartment where they are greeted either warmly or shooed away. My eyebrows are knitting. What does this have to do with Hansel and Gretel being in the dangerous woods looking for food?

Finally the children knock on the door of a man in a strange costume who invites them in. In time a whole tent affair covers furniture. There are projections of foliage on the furniture at the back of the space. Is this the woods? The Sandman has watched over them. The children say they have never slept better. I’m beginning to think that it wasn’t strawberries they ate in the woods but magic mushrooms. Either that or they are so hungry they are hallucinating. They realize that the man in the strange costume is really the witch in an even more garish costume. The children note the candies, cookies and gingerbread of the apartment structure. They are frightened by the witch. The witch tries to coerce Gretel into the stove—not the appliance in the kitchen, but a larger structure outside the kitchen. Gretel is smart and tricks the witch and pushes her into the large stove and kills her. At the same time missing, lost children burst out of the oven in the form of projections that look like gingerbread men that float across the walls. Hansel and Gretel’s parents arrive in matching green track suits to hug them and take them home.

Comment. Director Joel Ivany’s concept doesn’t work in the context of the story of the opera. A story about hunger becomes a story about child-kidnapping in an apartment building. Why the children were going from apartment to apartment for some reason (food?) is not clear. The witch in the forest was capturing children and baking them. Does Ivany equate this with a weird person in a building kidnapping children for his own ends? My eyebrows can’t rise any higher in disbelief.  The parents, frantic to find their children, have time to change into matching track suits?  The music is glorious and one doesn’t need to be trained to know it. But as for the concept of the production, it doesn’t work.  

Presented by the Canadian Opera Company

Saw it: Feb. 11, 2020.

Plays: Feb 19, 21.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, approx.

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1 David James February 18, 2020 at 10:54 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with your revue. H&G is and has been one of my favourite operas since my early teens. The score is perfect for the story and your description of orchestra, singers and conducting in this production being just dandy is 100% accurate. The production itself is a disaster and I can’t see it standing the test of time. It is utterly devoid of any charm and as it turtles on, it drifted further and further from logical drama. It is so off the mark as to become dangerously close to implosion. The previous production of 1994 by Maurice Sendak was spot on in its support of the well-known story and was bubbling over with charm. Yet for some reason it was never revived. Thank you for your perceptive review.