Although Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera has been a Christmas staple around the world for well over a century, it went many years without a professionally staged production in Chicago. Chicago Opera Theater did an English-language production in 1999, Lyric Opera co-produced the Welsh National Opera production that was seen here in 2001. Its dark take was controversial at the time.
That production, somewhat toned down, was revived in 2012 and is back now over a decade later, even more toned down. Curiously, Sir Andrew Davis—Lyric’s music director during those years—didn’t conduct it either time but is back for his first opera as newly announced Music Director Emeritus. How newly announced? As in a pre-curtain speech by general director Anthony Freud before the opening night performance.
As Freud cited Davis’ thirty-six-year career at Lyric that included two decades as music director, he noted that “tonight’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ will mark Sir Andrew’s seven-hundred-and-first opera performance at Lyric, his sixty-second opera at Lyric and Humperdinck, the twenty-second composer he has conducted at Lyric.” Only the past was mentioned, though, no future. Attempts to have Lyric specify what future Davis may actually have with the company were left unaddressed. When Lyric’s first music director Bruno Bartoletti was made Music Director Emeritus, it came with the understanding that he would return to conduct one production a season. Lyric’s new season will be announced March 14, so time will tell.
Richard Strauss conducted the 1893 premiere of “Hansel and Gretel,” Gustav Mahler also conducted the piece. The lush and brilliant orchestration requires the vast dynamic palette of a master Wagnerian, which Davis certainly became during his time here. Although the orchestra was not as large as this piece most benefits from, Davis did get a sumptuous sound.
The setting is updated to post-World War II with hunger as the theme. The “angels” of the Act II finale are master chefs providing a dream feast for famished children who only have food on the brain.
Mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey is making her Lyric debut as Hansel and soprano Heidi Stober portrays Gretel. They make a splendid pair who are mischievous and playful and blend beautifully in the famous prayer duet.
Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove returns as the Witch, charming enough to lure the children into a slapstick culinary free-for-all before getting her due.
The spectacular ending of the piece is a childlike reworking of the redemption music from Wagner’s “Parsifal,” complete with a children’s chorus. This time around the chorus was United Voices Chicago, formerly Chicago Children’s Choir, and they really rose to the occasion.
“Hansel and Gretel” at Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker (at Madison). lyricopera.org. Through February 5.