The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Hansel and Gretel asks us to see the world through a child’s eyes. Contributor Andrew Wagner-Chazalon gives it a try…
Setting Hansel and Gretel in modern Toronto seems like a reasonable way to stage an opera, with the urban jungle standing in for the dark forest where the children get lost. What we get in this new production from the Canadian Opera Company isn’t that at all. It is something much more subtle, challenging, and ultimately engaging.
Directed by Joel Ivany, this production of the 19th century German classic does nothing less than draw us completely into the world of a child’s imagination. We get to see the story through several different lenses at once and move seamlessly between the real and the imaginary, a feat that children manage easily but adults often forget how to do.
The story is the familiar Grimm’s fairy tale, with some of the horrific elements toned down (Englebert Humperdinckand his sister first wrote the opera as an entertainment for her children, and it remains a child-friendly version.) Here, the action takes place in an apartment building on the fringes of Toronto. Hansel and Gretel are the children of working-poor parents: they have a roof over their heads, but food is in short supply.
Hansel and Gretel Features Playful Modern Touches
There are plenty of playful modern touches in the staging. When Gretel teaches Hansel to dance, their moves include dabbing and flossing; their mother, Gertrude, comes home from work wearing a cashier’s apron; when she sends them out to the woods to pick strawberries because there’s no food in the house, they go to neighbouring apartments and ask if anyone has any food to share; the Dew Fairy who sings the children awake in the morning makes a pot of coffee and drinks it as she sings.
All of this is done with tremendous style and effect. Ivany and his design team (set and production designer S. Katy Tucker, costume designer Ming Wong, and lighting designer JAX Messenger) use projected imagery and a two-storey set design that allows us to witness the action as just part of the ongoing life that unfolds in multiple apartments at once.
But as the opera progresses, it becomes clear that Ivany isn’t just setting the story in a modern world; he’s presenting us with the world as it might be transformed by a child’s imagination. The apartment of an elderly neighbour becomes the deep dark forest, his stacks of books transformed into tree trunks. The caretaker’s apartment becomes the witch’s gingerbread house, with a mountain of Christmas presents to tempt the children.
The Workings of a Child’s Imagination
We aren’t meant to forget that the children are in an apartment, because they don’t forget it either: that’s how a child’s imagination works, juggling is and is not with a facility that often eludes adults. The child doesn’t really think a cardboard box is a cage, or a blanket fort is a tent in the forest, but the game continues as if the imaginary were real. Hansel and Gretel know that this story is an enchantment being crafted for their benefit by their parents and other adults, but they embrace it fully.
As they do, the transformative power of their imaginations brings magic into the lives of the adults. The elderly neighbour (played by Anna-Sophie Neher) moves slowly with the aid of a cane. But as the neighbour takes on roles in the children’s story – first the Sandman and then the Dew Fairy – and sings, she sets the cane aside and moves with lightness and grace, the magic of imagination freeing her from the bonds of age.
The performances in this opera are universally wonderful. Simone Osborne (Gretel) and Emily Fons (Hansel) are mesmerizing. Their voices blend beautifully, and they are completely engaging and believable as children. Russel Braunis particularly enjoyable as the children’s father, his rich, powerful baritone voice ringing out with paternal power and warmth. He is paired well with Krisztina Szabo as the mother. And Michael Colvin is a delight to watch as the witch, chewing up the scenery with joyful abandon.
The Evening Stars Come Out
The orchestra under the baton of Johannes Debus is a lush delight. There were moments in the first act when the nearly-80-piece ensemble threatened to overwhelm the sopranos, which may have been a problem with the set design. But when Osborne and Fons sing the gorgeous Evening Prayer at the finale of the second act, singing from an upstairs apartment, they and the orchestra are in perfect balance.
As they sing, the evening stars come out, filling the stage and theatre with an awe-inspiring display. It far exceeds anything a child has ever seen in Toronto, but it is certainly something a child could imagine. The effect is truly magical, a fitting element of this delightful production.
Andrew Wagner-Chazalon is Editor and CEO at Dockside Publishing. For more great happenings in Muskoka, Georgian Bay, Kawartha, and the Lake Simcoe area, be sure to pick up the 2019 edition of Lakeside magazine. Visit their website at www.docksidepublishing.com.