BWW Review: HANSEL AND GRETEL loses sight of its talented cast in an over-the-top, overwhelming production
The Canadian Opera Company's HANSEL AND GRETEL, directed by Joel Ivany, is a spectacularly detailed production; unfortunately, the sheer amount of things happening at every moment overwhelms the gorgeous music and talented cast.
Based loosely on The Brothers Grimm fairy tale but updated in this modern take, HANSEL AND GRETEL takes place in a Toronto apartment building. Troublemaking siblings Hansel (Emily Fons) and Gretel (Simone Osborne) break a milk jug - and lose their dinner in doing so - when their exhausted mother (Krisztina Szabó) comes home from work. The two are sent to pick strawberries, and their father (Russell Braun) comes home in much livelier spirits than his wife - he's finally made money on his brooms, and with this money he and his wife decide to hatch a scheme to scare their kids straight. They gather up the residents of their building, cast the custodian across the hall (Michael Colvin) as a witch, and turn their unit into a prison for their own children.
It's a premise that drifts from the classic fairy tale, and while the urban Toronto angle is interesting, it's far too busy to make for concise storytelling. The massive set and large-scale projection work (S. Katy Tucker) shifts the environment from the drab units of the building's tenants to a mystical galaxy, a forest, a Christmas wonderland and more - but there's too much happening at any given time to really focus on any one thing in particular.
As the titular siblings, Osborne and Fons are raucous, rowdy, and entirely convincing as the iconic troublemaking siblings. They make wonderful work of Humperdinck's jovial music, with their more solemn evening prayer being a prime example of the quiet beauty hiding beneath the busyness of the production. Szabó's exasperated attitude subtly bleeds into her performance and Braun's raucous, loud voice suggests where the kids get their rambunctious nature from.
Colvin is a great witch, as his balance between the demanding melodies and stereotypical cackles shows his range well. Anna-Sophie Neher pulls triple duty as the hoarder neighbor upstairs, who takes turns as both the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. Her clear voice works beautifully with the simple pieces, and she inflicts plenty of personality into all three roles.
Supporting actors are largely silent but help breathe life into the bare cement halls of the building. There's a nice message of community coming together as they all help the parents in pranking Hansel and Gretel, but there are plenty of questions that arise too. Where do these poor parents get the money to assemble such an elaborate ruse, complete with evergreens trees indoors, stacks of presents, and rich pastries? Why are other parents so willing to leave their kids with this couple overnight? Why are these unnamed neighbour kids - some who have been shown to be friends of Hansel and Gretel's - so down to scare their friends?
The great vocal performances and lush orchestral pieces, led by conductor Johannes Debus, aren't enough to pull the story out of the deep, confusing mass of the production's creative decisions. The concept of 'less is more' doesn't always work with large scale productions, but in the case of HANSEL AND GRETEL, a toned-down approach would've gone a lot further in creating a memorable, coherent experience.
The Canadian Opera Company's HANSEL AND GRETEL runs through February 21 at 145 Queen St W, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.coc.ca/productions/18719
Photo credit: Michael Cooper