Review: SF Opera presents Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel & Gretel’ Performed in English (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger

Sasha Cooke as Hansel and Heidi Stober as Gretel in SF Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel & Gretel.” Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel & Gretel’ is the perfect operatic example of a one hit wonder. Humperdinck is known for nothing else.

So what? ‘Hansel & Gretel’ is a marvel, an opera so popular that it has been in performance, without interruption, and no lag in reputation, for more than a century. The first performance of Humperdinck’s masterpiece (with a libretto written by the composer’s sister) was conducted by no less a luminary than a young Richard Strauss who called it a “masterpiece of the first class.”

Who am I to doubt the word of Richard Strauss? I, like so many, first heard the opera as a child, and its beautiful melodies have stayed with me through the decades. It is wonderful, lilting, exciting, and original. It has been called (by Richard Straus scholar Paul  Thomason) the “perfect blend of innocence and sophistication.” That it is.

The current production is full of wondrous things, from the magical staging with settings that seem to appear and vanish by magic, to frightening sequences, to the glorious fairy tale ballet which incorporates multiple stories from the Brothers’ Grimm and makes little eyes bulge with astonished delight.

Great care has been taken here with the settings and costumes. This may be a children’s opera, but no detail has been treated with anything less than loving attention. The witch’s house, which appears to be a cake with a terribly frightening knife cut into it, is everything a child might imagine. The transformation of the witch from appealing old lady to horrifying butcher is amazing but surrounded by enough good music and happy moments to keep from pushing the little ones too far.

Most memorable in this lovely production is an astonishing performance by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Hansel. Long favored by (and favoring) the SF Opera, Cooke’s Hansel is sung with amazing vigor and precision, and her acting brings a great depth of emotion to the character that children and adults will easily appreciate. The relationship between the two children (with an excellent Heidi Stober as Gretel) is a highlight of this production.

The very distinguished Wagnerian tenor, Robert Brubaker, a regular at the Metropolitan Opera and other leading companies, brings all of his considerable acting and singing chops to the role of the Witch. In many productions, the witch is played for laughs, but not here. Brubaker is genuinely terrifying and thank goodness he gets his comeuppance as thoroughly as possible, so children will know, without question, that evil has been vanquished.

For the performance I attended, Adler fellow Mary Evelyn Hangley stepped into the role of Mother for an ailing Michaela Martens. It was Hangley’s SF Opera debut, and she acquitted herself beautifully.

‘Hansel and Gretel’ is ideal for a child’s introduction to opera. The many who packed the house for the matinee I attended were never bored but appeared to be excited and engaged through every moment.

But if you don’t have children to bring, don’t let that stop you. Humperdinck’s “one hit wonder” is one for the ages.

“Hansel & Gretel” continues at the War Memorial Opera House through December 7. For further information, click here.

Rating: ****1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Please Read This (click here)

‘Hansel & Gretel’ by Engelbert Humperdinck. Libretto by Adeheid Wette. English translation by David Pountney. Conductor: Christopher Franklin. Director: Antony McDonald. Associate Stage Director: Danielle Urbas. Production Designer: Antony McDonald. Associate Set Designer: Ricardo Pardo. Lighting Designer: Lucy Carter. Revival Lighting Designer: Neili Brinkworth. Choreographer: Lucy Burge. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. 


Gretel: Heidi Stober. Hansel: Sasha Cooke. Gertrude, the Mother: Michaela Martens. Peter, the Father: Alfred Walker. Ashley Dixon: The Sandman. Natalie Image: The Dew Fairy. Robert Brubaker: The witch. Will-o’-the-wisp: Chiharu Shibata. 

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