From Seven in One Blow to Snow White and now Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers Grimm have defined my December. Grandest and "Grimmest" of all is the last, presented by the Metropolitan Opera in a gorgeous English-language production by Richard Jones that originated at the Welsh National Opera and first ran at the Met in 2007.
With glorious voices, delightful acting, and Fabio Luisi conducting a fired-up Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the production boasts John Macfarlane's beautiful if somewhat modest (for the Met) sets, which carry through the central motif (food!) – from the family's humble kitchen, all in off-white, to the dark green dreamlike woods, and finally to the Witch's gingerbread house, looking like a fantasyland test kitchen.
As the title characters, Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson sing in lovely colors, leading a strong cast all of whom seem to be having a wonderful time. Tenor Philip Langridge made a splash as the Witch two years ago and has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm, giving her a depth of character that easily survives the table-dancing, the funny and slightly campy costume, and the clouds of cocoa powder and face full of cake. Dwayne Croft's sturdy voice and capacity for boisterous humor make him ideal for the role of the father, and Rosalind Plowright does wonderfully sympathetic work in Act I as the harried mother, who gets impatient with her children only because she can't feed them.
Engelbert Humperdinck's score has been justly celebrated for over a century, and Mr. Luisi strikes just the right balance of Wagnerian sublimity (Humperdinck was a Wagner protégé) and the warm angelic brilliance the tale inspired in the composer. That warmth is most pronounced in the gorgeous "Fourteen Angels" song with which the lost Hansel and Gretel sing themselves to sleep in the dark woods. The chef-angels dream sequence that follows is a scene of exquisite, wordless beauty.
Once the Witch has been roasted, the family reunited, and the Witch's gingerbread victims restored to humanity, the opera concludes with a lovely chorale proclaiming "When in need or dark despair, God will surely hear our prayer." But the religious patina is purely a matter of faith; the children have survived their ordeal solely because of their own quick thinking, Gretel's in particular. It's a fairy story, after all, a crusty old folk tale gathered by the Grimms from ancient sources, and the Christian God is a latecomer to this musical feast; perhaps he'll be seated during intermission, but only at the discretion of the management. There's much more primal business to attend to, summed up in the final image: as all celebrate their safety and momentary bounty, a leering Hansel raises a roasted Witch-limb to his mouth as the house goes dark.
Rounding out the cast, Jennifer Johnson is the Sandman and Erin Morley his sunrise counterpart the Dew Fairy. These two fine singers in cameo roles prove that the Met can summon an embarrassment of riches even for its smallest and most family-friendly offerings. Not that anything at the Metropolitan Opera can really be called small, though; this Hansel and Gretel is serious opera, if by "serious" we mean a story with depth, world-class performances, and glorious music. A joy for all ages, it would make a fine introduction for any opera neophyte, child or adult. Hansel and Gretel runs in repertory through Jan. 2 at the Met.