THE BEST FAIRY TALES are the scariest ones, and Hansel and Gretel is no exception: Two starving kids are abandoned in a dark forest, where they fight off a cannibalistic witch. Portland Opera's staging of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel—utilizing scenery and costumes from the Metropolitan Opera's recent staging, which were originally created for the Welsh National Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago—finds a happily effective place to retell this familiar story. It's both comically lighthearted and deliciously creepy; kids will giggle, and adults will probably have nightmares.
Portland Opera's second show of the season, Hansel and Gretel is decidedly more entertaining than September's season premiere, the pairing of Leoncavallo's lusty Pagliacci and Orff's brainy oratorio Carmina Burana. It's funny—there are several laugh-out-loud moments—and it's less self-consciously arty, while just as visually striking. A progression of gorgeous painted backdrops introduces each of the three acts, transforming a dinner plate into a smear of blood. The sets themselves toy with the audience's perspective, sharing common elements (a sink to the side, a door in a similar place) that suggest a faint hint of reality beneath the story's veneer of imaginative whimsy. Sandra Piques Eddy and Maureen McKay (Hansel and Gretel, respectively) are both excellent, convincingly playing energetic and careless children while maintaining the operatic power necessary to hit the back rows of the vast Keller Auditorium. But the show belongs to Allan Glassman, a tenor who plays the Witch in drag. Glassman doesn't show up until well into the show's second half, but his performance is a perfectly executed balance of comedy and villainy, stuffed into a rubber fatsuit that would put Martin Lawrence to shame.
None of this would matter if the music weren't any good, but Humperdinck's opera is remarkable ear candy, remaining fluidly intoxicating without ever once falling into operatic bombast. The overture itself is worth leaving the house for, and the "Evening Prayer" segment, followed by a pantomime in which 14 angels—dressed like grotesque, cartoony chefs—surround the sleeping children, is ghostly and powerful. An enthusiastic orchestra swallows a few sung lines, but Hansel and Gretel is the kind of show that works on every level—bizarre, funny, beautiful, haunting, and filled with the terror and delight of being a child.