“Hansel and Gretel,” Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1890s fairy tale, is currently running at San Francisco Opera.
A co-production with Royal Opera in London, it is set squarely in a Brothers Grimm landscape, with alpine cottages that back up to snow-covered mountains and lots of gingerbread.
As all good fairy tales, the story is dark: Hansel and Gretel wander away from a home inhabited by abusive parents into a forest inhabited by an evil witch with a ravenous appetite for children and a big cauldron in which to boil them.
Just the sort of thing 6-year-olds love to dwell on.
In this production, though, directed and designed by Antony McDonald in his company debut, there is little of the sinister to match Humperdinck’s music. Hansel and Gretel seem to have a merry time in the forest, no one stalks them (as any evil witch would), and the witch is so jovial that that we almost regret her quick demise in a pot of boiling mousse.
McDonald’s sets mirror the concept; the only fearful image is the witch’s edible house, sliced almost in two by a giant kitchen knife. It was applauded.
The opera, a holiday favorite the world over, is led by American conductor Christopher Franklin with precision and high spirits, and Humperdinck’s music is radiantly sung in English by a starry cast.
The Richard Wagner-influenced orchestration (the composer helped Wagner with the premiere of “Parsifal’’) demands a large ensemble, 65 in this case, and the orchestra turned in a buoyant, high-volume performance, lingering unsentimentally over the engaging overture and the Evening Prayer.
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and soprano Heidi Stober in the title roles sang with bright, warm colors, and were entirely convincing as a couple of rebellious teens.
Stober’s voice sounded forced early on, but soon took on her usual fresh and glowing tone, and Cooke’s Hansel’s was robust-voiced and physically believable. Cooke was entirely convincing as the brother in need of some taming by an older sister.
Richard Strauss, who conducted the premiere, said the work was a masterpiece and Hansel “is devilishly difficult,’’ and Cooke filled the bill.
The children’s parents were vibrantly portrayed by Michaela Martens and Alfred Walker, both of whom we heard in the last “Elektra,” and tenor Robert Brubaker’s witch was hilarious, evil intentions projecting from his boisterous, spiky voice.
Smaller roles were well sung too, by Adler fellows Ashley Dixon as a quirky-voiced Sandman and Natalie Image as the Dew Fairy.
The fairy tale characters McDonald imports from other Grimms’ tales to comfort Hansel and Gretel, among them Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White, seemed a disconnect, but the chorus of children, freed after being turned into cookies by the witch, were delectable, the chorus made up of members of the opera chorus and the San Francisco girls and boys choruses.
Children should bring their parents to this show, assuring them there is nothing to fear.
“Hansel and Gretel” performances run though Dec. 7 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.