Faceless tree creatures wearing black suits and ties.
Fourteen winged and masked chefs complete with white uniforms and toques and a dapper, tuxedo-clad fish serving as a butler.
A cannibalistic witch who comes off as a Julia Child-like cook on steroids.
These were some of the eye-opening sights Wednesday evening as Lyric Opera of Chicago opened a revival of a “Hansel and Gretel” production that it first presented in 2001-02 to considerable success and brought back in 2012-13. (In both those cases, it was presented during the holidays, a longtime tradition with this work.)
Lyric Opera of Chicago — ‘Hansel and Gretel’
Even though German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic 19th-century operatic adaptation of the well-known Grimms’ fairy tale calls out for fantastical treatment, this imaginative, unconventional and sometimes surreal take still manages to deliciously defy expectations.
This version, first seen at the Welsh National Opera in 1998, was conceived by stage director Richard Jones and revived here by Eric Einhorn. The sets by John Macfarlane downplay any storybook quaintness and do away with the usual forest and gingerbread house.
Instead, the opera opens in a meager kitchen from vaguely post-World War II Europe painted in washed-out whites and grays. The forest is shown as a kind of black, walled chasm and inside the witch’s house is a stark, industrial kitchen.
If it all sounds a little grim, well, that’s the point. “Hansel and Gretel” is, after all, a harrowing story, and as this opera and particularly this interpretation make clear, hunger and its pernicious effects are a central theme throughout.
But don’t worry, this production, which runs about 2¼ hours with one intermission, offers plenty of fun and wonder, too. And ultimately, that’s why it works so well, because like the fairy tale on which it is based, it manages to find just the right balance of darkness and lightness.
In addition to a story that is almost universally known, this opera also has another significant asset in its favor, a beautiful score by Humperdinck (1854-1921) suffused with Wagner-influenced romanticism and children’s folk songs.
To lead this production, the company turned to a familiar figure: Andrew Davis, who served as its music director from 2000 through 2021 and has led 700 performances with the company. He brought a sure hand to this opera, drawing rich, involving playing from Lyric’s fine 65-piece pit orchestra beginning with the long, evocative overture and capably pacing the action on stage.
Before the curtain rose Wednesday evening, Anthony Freud, Lyric’s president, general director and chief executive director, announced from the stage that the company had named Davis as music director emeritus. It is a much-deserved appointment and a shrewd move on the part of the company, because it assures Davis’ return in future seasons.
The company assembled a strong cast for “Hansel and Gretel,” including the return of one of the most popular performers from the 2012-13 revival: mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, a Lyric regular. She offers a high-octane, wonderfully over-the-top portrayal of the witch, bounding around the kitchen and switching back and forth from a false syrupy hospitableness to the character’s true malevolence.
Taking on the title roles are soprano Heidi Stober as Gretel and mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey as Hansel. Well-matched as actors and singers, the two are completely believable as children and siblings in the way they carry themselves and taunt and support each other.
Stober and Hankey expend enormous quantities of energy as they dance and romp around in their highly physical portrayals, really letting loose as they tear up the witch’s kitchen after they triumphantly push her into the oven in Act 3.
Deserving particular praise is Stober, who is back for her third appearance at Lyric. The technically secure soprano has appeared in this role with major companies like New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and she convincingly conveys both the strength and youthful vulnerability of Gretel and compellingly handles Humperdinck’s poignant writing for this character.
Also meriting mention is the return of Uniting Voices Chicago (formerly Chicago Children’s Choir), which offers a moving song of thanks after children turned into gingerbread come back to life following the witch’s demise.