The sweetness of home: San Francisco Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel”

Grimm’s folk tales are indeed grim. Often functioning to terrify children, they frequently pit innocence against malevolence. We don’t seem to be able to free ourselves of them and our childhoods remain full of girls in red hoods chased by wolves and starving children abandoned by their parents in dark woods. For what keeps the stories alive and seductive is that the innocents often defeat the evil forces that threaten them.

Hansel and Gretel, the 1893 opera by Engelbert Humperdinck to a libretto by his sister, Adelheid Wette, presents a far more benign version of the Brothers Grimm story. It opened this past weekend at San Francisco Opera in a co-production with the Royal Opera House. Despite director and designer Antony McDonald’s rather staid production, Hansel and Gretel retains its essential charm. The music was lush and melodic, enhanced by the opera symphony’s fine instrumentalism – love those French horns! – under the baton of Christopher Franklin.

The Witch (Robert Brubaker) catches Hansel (Sasha Cooke) and Gretel (Heidi Stober) chewing on her house in San Francisco Opera’s production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Photo by Cory Weaver/ San Francisco Opera.

Add to that the excellent singing and acting by the cast of seven singers and the opera wove a mystery and magic that appealed to both adults and children. The early curtain of 7:30 for the two hour and 15 minute production meant that children could and did come to the opera. The ones I saw were fascinated and thrilled.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang the role of Hansel, and Heidi Stober sang Gretel. Separately and in harmony they were charming, with Hansel portrayed as boyish and naïve and Gretel as an intrepid and faithful older sister. Their most famous duet, the Prayer at the end of Act 1, which is a motif throughout the score, was sung with warmth and purity.

The children’s parents, rather than the wicked stepmother and spineless father of Grimm renown, were two good-hearted but downtrodden laborers, who vent their frustration on the children, leading them to wander off into the darkest reaches of the Black Forest. When Mother and Father realize their mistake, they set off to find the children and bring them home to celebrate in Father’s unexpected good luck. Michaela Martens sang Mother Gertrude, moving from Good Mother to Bad Mother and back with vocal alacrity, and Alfred Walker was a jolly and big-voiced Father Peter. They managed a quirky little dance of joy before running off to find their lost children.

In the second act the children faced tenor Robert Brubaker as a gleeful and convincingly wicked Witch, garbed in long skirts and corsets and carrying a wand that snapped and crackled with electric badness. The witch’s gingerbread house was decorated on top with a large knife and glowing cherry. At least one of the banisters was made of baked chocolate and Heidi Stober seemed happy to bite into and savor its rich flavor.

Adler Fellows Ashey Dixon and Natalie Image sang the The Sandman and Dew Fairy, respectively, adding magic to the forest that threatened and soothed the lost children with dream-like fairy-tale characters.

As last year, the Community Housing Partnership in partnership with Compass Family Services was in the lobby asking audience members to take a few moments to interact with San Francisco Opera’s gingerbread house display. They asked us to consider the meaning of home and to express that in a few words that could be attached to the display.

The Community Housing Partnership is concerned with homelessness and gives advice on how to interact and support the homeless within the community. According to the organizations, “families with children represent 33% of the homeless population, the majority of whom are single mothers.” Through the OPERA America’s Opera Fund, San Francisco Opera is part of the organizations’ outreach program. To support their efforts, go to sfopera.com/earnyourwings and you can make your holidays meaningful to those without homes.

– Jaime Robles

Hansel and Gretel continues at the War Memorial Opera House through December 7. For tickets and information, visit sfopera.com.