SF Opera sets holiday mood with gentler, charming ‘Hansel and Gretel’

Family-friendly production lightens Grimm fairy tale

Antony McDonald’s family-friendly production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” that made its San Francisco Opera debut Friday was far from scary — in contrast with the frightening Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale upon which it is based — but a talented cast charged the work with welcome charm and magic.

Although the softening of the tale’s scariness begins with the libretto, written by the composer’s sister Adelheid Wette, the co-production with London’s Royal Opera G-rates just about every Grimm detail, including references to abusive parents, child labor, and pain and suffering.

Family strife does crop up in Act 1’s opening scene, set in Hansel and Gretel’s Teutonic country house. That’s where sonorous mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in the pants role of Hansel and plush-voiced soprano Heidi Stober as his sister Gretel share a lively duet but take some heat for their frivolity from robust mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, their mother Gertrude, who orders them to forage the forest for strawberries.

Resonant bass-baritone Alfred Walker, in a pleasingly paternal portrayal of Hansel and Gretel’s father Peter (no whiff of the drunk from the original story) returns home, and that is when we learn the forest is a dangerous place inhabited by a witch who lures children into her abode to consume them.

Peter’s concern seems merited once Hansel and Gretel lose their way in the forest in Act 2, but any fright the children may have is tempered by the leprechaun-like Sandman (appealing mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon), whose soothing song and glittering sand cause the children to doze off.

Into the Act 2 Dream Pantomime scene stepped supernumeraries as more Grimm characters: Prince Charming (Michael Bragg), Cinderella (Holly MacCormick), Little Red Riding Hood (Sarah Nadreau), Snow White (Stacey Chien), Rapunzel (Nina Rocco), Rumpelstiltskin (Kay Thornton), the Wolf (Sarah Yune), Stag Huntsman (Bragg), Fox Woodsman (Yune), and a dancing Will-o’-the-Wisp (SFO dance corps member Chiharu Shibata).

Once lovely soprano Natalie Image as the Dew Fairy sings Hansel and Gretel awake in Act 3, the children finally venture into a semi-spooky realm as they find an irresistibly edible cake-like house with a large knife across the roof and a glowing cherry on top. But living in this Bates Motel-esque residence is the child-chomping Witch, who doesn’t seem quite as fearful as portrayed by the in-drag, playfully buoyant tenor Robert Brubaker.

Hansel and Gretel’s shove of the Witch into a batch of baking chocolate drew applause, as did Ian Robertson’s children’s chorus as the Witch’s cookies who came back to life, and Christopher Franklin’s tastefully balanced conducting of the orchestra.

REVIEW

Hansel and Gretel

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 2 p.m. Nov. 17, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21, Nov. 23, Dec. 3 and Dec. 7

Tickets: $26 to $398

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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