By Engelbert Humperdinck, directed by Joel Ivany, conducted by Johannes Debus, Four Seasons Centre, Feb. 6 to 21, 2020, in partnership with the Banff Centre.
Director Joel Ivany has set Humperdinck’s masterpiece in the imaginations of Hansel (mezzo-soprano Emily Fons) and Gretel (soprano Simone Osborne) who live in subsidized housing somewhere in Toronto. It’s a good idea. Kids go hungry, even in first world cities, and dream of gingerbread houses and delectable sweets. The problem with this production is the execution of that idea.
During the overture, a projection of the earth as seen from space zooms in on North America, and ultimately on Toronto, and then to an apartment complex, courtesy of Google Earth. Designer S. Katy Tucker’s set shows two floors of apartments, which Ivany has filled with people. In the four apartments on display, there is the first floor where Hansel and Gretel live, the elderly person (I couldn’t make out the gender), who lives above them, the young woman and her dog who live across from he/she, and the first floor apartment opposite the children’s family. Everyone in the building seems friendly to the children, and since they don’t go outside where the street scene must be scary, I don’t understand where the children’s nightmare comes from.
The three apartments not directly involved in the story are dimly lit throughout. Presumably, life goes on, is what Ivany is trying to say, although one can barely make out the occupants and their activities. From the fifth ring it must be impossible to distinguish between the furniture and the people. In other words, confusion reigns. When the children’s imagination does flower, they are in the elderly person’s apartment above them. I thought that person might become the witch but that logical step doesn’t happen. The Witch (tenor Michael Colvin), materializes from elsewhere. The Sandman/Dew Fairy (soprano Anna-Sophie Neher) appears on both floors, first in the upper apartment for night, and then in the children’s own apartment for the witch’s scene. I do like the fact that the Dew Fairy is in the kitchen getting her morning cup of coffee before her aria.
Designer Tucker is also responsible for the dazzling digital projections that depict the brilliance of the night sky, and the riot of colour that conjures up the witch’s domain along with glittering Christmas trees and mounds of gifts. These projections cover all four apartments, and even the interior of the opera house itself. Inexplicably, the children’s parents (mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo and baritone Russell Braun) in tracksuits, keep sneaking peeks at their children during their dream, while covering the apartment with draperies. The young members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, who pour onto the stage at the end as the freed Gingerbread Children, seem a might cramped. Ming Wong’s costumes cleverly depict the everyday, while running wild with the Witch and the Fairies. One clever detail is the over-tunic that the mother wears that you’d find on workers at Walmart or Dollarama, evoking her minimum wage job.
If the staging is problematic, the music under Johannes Debus’ conducting is perfection. Humperdinck was a protégé of Richard Wagner, and there are even quotes from Wagner’s music dramas sprinkled throughout. The forces needed for Hansel and Gretel are huge, and while Debus has had to import a significant number of extra players, the orchestra melds together beautifully, with Debus showing the right amount of lightness and darkness throughout.
The singers acquit themselves with distinction, and there isn’t a weak link on the stage in this mostly Canadian cast. Ivany gets great naturalistic acting from the children and their parents, and delightful menace from the Witch. Someone to watch is current COC ensemble member Neher whose feathery bright lyric soprano should take her far.
I’m perfectly willing to accept auteur opera stage directors, but the vision does have to make sense. There is a worthy production here but Ivany has to clear up the confusion, primarily, how can a building filled with friendly neighbours become scary? Also, because they are singing in German, the English surtitles don’t necessarily mesh with the modern stage action. Nonetheless, getting Hansel and Gretel and its beautiful music on the mainstage is definitely a worthy enterprise. The last time that happened at the COC was 1998.