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A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Hansel & Gretel; ​​Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON February 7th 2020

x(l-r) Simone Osborne as Gretel, Emily Fons as Hansel and Michael Colvin as The Witch in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Hansel & Gretel; ​Photo credit: Michael Cooper

None of the singers in the production was new to Canadian audiences. All but Emily Fons are Canadian, and most are graduates or current members of the COC’s Ensemble Studio. Both soprano Simone Osborne (Gretel) and soprano Emily Fons (Hansel) were the consummate singing actors – playful and childlike. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó (Gertrude) and baritone Russell Braun (Peter) delivered strong performances as the parents of Hansel and Gretel. Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher played both the Sandman and The Dew Fairy.

I don’t usually dwell so much on the production side of operatic performances. I am mainly there for the magnificent music. Humperdinck’s music did not disappoint. With the fine orchestra in the meticulous care of conductor Johannes Debut, the rich Wagnerian harmonies and dense orchestrations were very satisfying. Stéphane Mayer, in his entertaining pre-concert talk, dwelt on the music of the opera highlighting the folk melodies with repetitive rhythms and the leitmotifs that could be heard throughout. This was an opera that one could go back to just for the gorgeous sounds of the orchestra and singers. I was especially impressed by the work of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company directed by Terri Dunn. As gingerbread men who were brought back to life with the demise of the witch, it sang with beautiful tone and acted with natural spontaneity.

This is an opera for the entire family with comic effects that the youngest to the oldest can appreciate. It is not surprising that it is a Christmas favourite of many opera houses. The Met inter-changes it and Magic Flute every year. This is a production that could become a staple of the holiday period should the Four Seasons Centre ever become available.

Last night was the first of seven performances of Hansel & Gretel. It runs through February 21 2020.

I first saw Engelbert Humperdinck’s only hit opera Hansel & Gretel during my first year of university in the UofT Opera School’s production. I found an unlocked door to the upper wings of the MacMillan Theatre and watched from there. It opened my eyes and ears to the world of opera that I had previously avoided. I was mesmerized by the magic of it all. The production created a straightforward visual of a rural 18th century German setting that portrayed the Brothers Grimm fairytale much as in my childhood books, complete with a gingerbread house and a fearsome witch. The current run at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts by the Canadian Opera Company couldn’t be more of a contrast to my early memory.

Much like the children’s game of ‘Ring Around a Rosie” developed as a macabre game arising from the Bubonic plague that swept across Europe in the 14th century, so the story of Hansel & Gretel arose from the abject poverty of the 18th century when, with no social safety net, parents were forced to abandon their children in order to survive. The horror of that society was turned into a fairytale with a happy ending.

The production that opened last night, took the children’s fairytale turned opera and brought it vividly back to the reality of poverty within our present city life. Instead of just an entertainment for children, it made a striking impact on the wealthy adult patrons filling most of the seats. Director Joel Ivany and his creative team including Set and Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker, Costume Designer Ming Wong and Lighting Designer Jax Messinger brilliantly re-set the opera in a Toronto high-rise apartment.

As the overture opens, a child’s image of earth from space appears on the front curtain. As it gets closer, we see the garbage left by satellites and approaching ever closer, the world is covered in clouds, or perhaps smog. It then turns into a Google Earth image moving closer and closer to Toronto until it goes right over the Four Seasons Centre. When it reaches the apartment building where we first see into various windows of the building, the first scene opens to reveal the apartment where Hansel and Gretel have been left alone by their parents. 

The overwhelming imagery dominated the opera. The children slept in what looked like a tent city under the Gardiner Expressway. Instead of a gingerbread house, there was what seemed like a department store Christmas display. Much of the set changes occured with impressive lighting, projections and videos created with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. The surreal night sky at the end of Act II was especially impressive. I had to go out to my car during the subsequent intermission, and with snow falling on the momentarily quiet Queen Street, it was as if I was in the urban forest created on stage.​

Tenor Michael Colvin was The Witch. Colvin’s comic sense was a highlight as he portrayed the sleezy and despicable character. This was no stand-and-sing opera. Each of the characters carried the drama convincingly.

Was the horder in the apartment upstairs who became The Sandman and The Dew Fairy the helpful neighbor who keeps a watchful eye on the children from a distance? The apartment caretaker, always hovering about, became the witch in Act III. Was he the seductive sexual predator?  Regrettably, the complexity of having activity going on in each of the apartments was often lost on me. Perhaps it was meant to highlight the loneliness, vulnerability and alienation in a crowded city.

(l-r) Emily Fons as Hansel and Simone Osborne as Gretel in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Hansel & Gretel
​Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Canadian Opera Company’s Hansel & Gretel opens with plenty of surprises!​

Simone Osborne as Gretel and Anna-Sophie Neher as the Dew Fairy in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Hansel & Gretel
​​Photo credit: Michael Cooper

(foreground) Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude and Russell Braun as Peter with (background, l-r) Simone Osborne as Gretel and Emily Fons as Hansel in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Hansel & Gretel
​​Photo credit: Michael Cooper