The Brothers Grimm turn lyrical in this musical version of Hänsel und Gretel
It can be hard to stretch the limits of a cute fairy tale like Engelbert Humperdinck’s operatic Hänsel und Gretel, but the challenge was clearly overcome by the Opéra de Montréal.
The fairy tale, probably known by most of us, goes something like this: picture a gingerbread house, a wicked witch, a burning oven, and there you have it. Your parents might even have read this Brothers Grimm fairy tale to you during your childhood.
Humperdinck’s version of the story respects the skeleton of the tale rather well. Here we have two hungry siblings, Hänsel and Gretel, who are sent by an angry mother to collect strawberries in the forest. As in most fairy tales, the pair gets lost. But things start to look up when they are soon revitalized by the sight of a gingerbread house.
Overcome by hunger, the children begin nibbling at the house until they are whisked away and caged by the house’s owner: the witch. She chooses Hänsel as her next meal and decides to “fatten him up” while using his sister Gretel as a slave.
The conclusion? While the witch prepares the kitchen, Gretel ingeniously asks the witch to show her how to heat the oven, then promptly pushes the witch into the fire. Goodbye bad witch, and let’s open the champagne. Or nibble on chocolate vanilla macaroons. Whatever you prefer.
With the help and collaboration of the National Circus School, this production is out of the ordinary when it comes to originality. Dancers and acrobats brought the story to life as they balanced on tight ropes or cleverly used their bodies to express the emotion needed in any particular scene.
What is particularly mesmerizing is the use of stage direction. Instead of placing poster-like trees to illustrate a forest, the use of book pages is set up to impress upon the public that this is indeed a fairy tale.
Cast members often sang from a box, formatted to look like they were characters in a book. It was comparable to, say, people moving about in photographs in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
Another bonus was the pace of the opera. Whereas some operas can go on and on about a particular issue, this opera gets right to the point and challenges the audience to a myriad of issues: the cleverness of children versus their naughtiness, the oppressive character of parents and the sheer physical need to eat. The audience often sighs with the pair’s mother, played expertly by France Bellemare, but we often rejoice when Gretel takes a mighty bite from that candycane, or when Hänsel dances around the forest, singing. The message from this opera is clear — even in the worst and darkest of times, you can find some light and happiness.
Emma Char, playing Hänsel, and Frédérique Drolet, playing Gretel, shine in their respective roles. Char plays the boyish character to a T, while Drolet livened up the production using comedy to engage the public. All in all, this 10th edition of the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal has given its all to provide Montrealers with a little bit of magic to combat those winter blues. Don’t miss it, folks.
Hänsel und Gretel plays at Place des Arts until April 2. You can see the opera for only $24 using the promo code CONCORDIA: operademontreal.com/fr/billetterie/promotions-concours.