Hansel and Gretel opera conjures an enchanting forest of visual and aural delights

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      By Engelbert Humperdinck. Directed by Brenna Corner. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Thursday, November 24. Continues until December 11

      Vancouver Opera’s wildly imaginative new Hansel and Gretel creates breathtaking moments of magic—both visual and musical.

      This production’s joys rest in the element of surprise, and we won’t give the best ones away here. Suffice it to say you’ll feel at one point like you’re sitting in a dark forest with glowing will-o’-the-wisps floating over your head. Other scenes are like Salvador Dali dreams: you’ll swear you just saw tree trunks blinking, or the Sandman’s eyes and ears floating through space. And we haven’t even mentioned the strange, moss-furred bog creatures that lumber out to stare quizzically into the orchestra pit, let alone the towering witch with red ostrich-plume eyelashes to match the scarlet fingernails on her oversized claws.

      These visual treats come courtesy of the creative brains at Alberta’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, which has crafted not only deliriously weird puppets to populate the show, but atmospheric sets and costumes, too.

      The collaboration brings a cool new twist to a work that’s more than a century old. As director Brenna Corner told the Straight in an interview before the show opened, this is a production that allows you to see the craft of theatre even while you’re losing yourself in it. The puppeteers here—the “Trouts”, along with the children’s chorus—are always visible, wearing old football-style leather helmets and high-top sneakers, and their manoeuvring becomes a fascinating dance all its own. At the same time that they’re challenging your notions of what an opera can be, they’re also pushing puppetry as an art form.

      But on to the operatic elements. Here, too, the feel is decidedly different: wunderkind director Alex Prior and Vancouver Opera commissioned a new arrangement from Russian composer Anatoly Korolyov. It brings in nontraditional instruments—saxophones, percussion, and guitar—that reflect the offbeat, contemporary staging and yet maintain 19th-century composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s rich, romantic melodies. It’s a beautiful score, with shades of Johannes Brahms and even Richard Wagner. Prior ferrets out all the nuance in it, from the lightest flute trills to the deepest, haunting strings.

      Pascale Spinney and Taylor Pardell bring a kidlike charm to the title characters, especially Spinney’s tousle-haired, rough-and-tumble Hansel. They make the vocal acrobatics here sound easy, and have gone to great lengths to find the physical language of children. In the latter, they’re hugely aided by the ingenious overscale sets and puppets, which make them look small. Ryan Downey rips into the role of the cannibalistic witch, and it’s a feat considering he’s performing inside such a giant puppet contraption. Still, he’s visible enough that you can appreciate what he’s bringing to the part: watch him tear into a cackling song, enthuse “Plump and juicy, mmm-mmm-mmm!” and maniacally manoeuvre a gigantic hand around little Hansel’s torso.

      There is only the odd misstep along the way, and that’s probably to be expected in such a bold experiment. At one brief moment in the score, the electric guitar sounds harshly out of place; occasionally, the new English translation’s rhymes clunk; and the witch’s house appears two-dimensional and cartoonish amid the rich forest set and creatures.

      But when all of this show’s diverse elements come together, the experience is near awe-inducing—no matter what your age. There’s a scene where Hansel and Gretel call out to an ominous, red-plumed cuckoo, a big whirligig puppet up in a gnarled tree, and with the woodwind birdcalls and serene voices echoing through the theatre it casts a bigger spell than the gingerbread witch ever could.

      The parade of wonders here—most of it blissfully low-tech—will easily entertain children around eight and up. There’s even an artful shadow-puppet sequence to amuse them through the overture. The only question now is, will families in Vancouver bring their kids out to the opera? The bog creatures and the wicked witch will have to wait and see.