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OPERA REVIEW Hansel und Gretel
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

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Score: Engelbert Humperdinck; Libretto: Adelheid Wette. At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-332-2244 or; $34-$239. Runs through: Jan. 19

It took the Lyric Opera of Chicago an unconscionable 47 years to finally produce Hänsel und Gretel. Engelbert Humperdinck's classic 1893 opera finally made it to the Lyric in 2001 via an Olivier Award-winning co-production directed by Richard Jones and commissioned by then Welsh National Opera general director Anthony Freud.

Twelve years later for Hänsel und Gretel's first Lyric revival, Freud is now general director of the esteemed Chicago company and Jones' take on Humperdinck's masterwork has also become the version of choice for New York's Metropolitan Opera (albeit in an aggrandized and slightly softened 2007 production that made the dream pantomime chefs more cherubic than creepy).

The Lyric return of Hänsel und Gretel was perfectly timed to coincide with last year's 200th anniversary of the Grimm Brothers' first publication of Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children and Household Tales), which helped popularize this dark folk tale of starvation and cannibalism. And Jones' production once again shows its dark brilliance with often scary and surreal hunger-inspired imagery (starkly and ruddily dreamed up by production designer John MacFarlane) mixed with plenty of food-splattering humor in the Witch's oversize industrial kitchen.

This time around, Eric Einhorn has been enlisted as stage director, and the cast is truly top-notch.

As the respective title siblings, Ryan Opera Center alums Elizabeth DeShong and Maria Kanyova cavort around convincingly as naughty kids while also showing off powerful voices that can cut through the romantic and thick Wagner-inspired orchestration.

As the siblings' parents, Julie Makerov's short-tempered Mother is appropriately agitated, while Brian Mulligan's jovial and drunkard Father shows a physically violent dark side. Also of vocally bright and brief note are soprano Emily Birsan as the Sandman (returning here in puppet form) and soprano Kiri Deonarine as the 1950s platinum-blond and perfect housewife-inspired Dew Fairy.

Both DeShong and Kanyova's Hänsel and Gretel more than meet their match in the Witch of Jill Grove, who takes on extra layers of padding and prosthetics to appear as a rolly-polly Granny with a demented TV chef personality (quite a comic change from her depraved and powerfully sung Klytämnestra in Elektra earlier this season).

Conductor Ward Stare leads a beautifully majestic take on the score, which is only enhanced at the end by the rescued gingerbread children sung by members of ANIMA—Young Singers of Greater Chicago.

If there is one complaint, the lighting of designer Jennifer Tipton is too dark in the Act II forest scene. But then again, this production appropriately reinjects plenty of the Grimm Brothers' dark horror that was made less menacing in its Victorian-era libretto.

Far from being candy-coated like many typical productions, the Lyric's production certainly has a sharp and smart bite.

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