Hansel and Gretel, New York City Opera

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‘Tis the season to be kitschy. ‘Tis the time when kids get twitchy. But not at the New York City Opera.

The company has brought back Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in a brilliant, poignant production that steadfastly rejects candy-coated sentiment, romantic rumination and religious goo.

As created by James Robinson, refreshed by David Grabarkewitz, designed by John Conklin and dressed by Anna Oliver, this is a fairy tale minus fairies.

It is stark and dark, sometimes witty, a trenchant tale of hunger and poverty in Manhattan, circa 1890. The central siblings, German emigrés, get lost in Central Park, dream of a world populated with sympathetic rich people in white, and fall prey to a menacing matriarch who resembles Joan Crawford.

The happy end may not be all that happy. After all, Hansel and Gretel must return to their bleak tenement. A flash-forward tells us so.

The characters sing in loose, snappy rhymes concocted by Cori Ellison, with the English text projected in redundant surtitles.

When the tunes turn folksy, the language reverts to German. The disparity makes sense, and exerts its own quaint charm.

Grimm is grim these days at the New York State Theater. Still, Robinson’s vision does no harm to the pre-sweetened original. To the contrary.

Although the cast featured no great voices (they are hard to recognise in this amplified house anyway), ensemble values remained lofty.

Most imposing: Jessie Raven as the plangently sinister socialite. Jennifer Rivera (Hansel) and Jennifer Aylmer (Gretel) looked more aggressive than they sounded.

Cheryl Evans was the muted Mother, Michael Chioldi the rather rough Father. Steven Mosteller sustained masterly finesse in the pit.

One encountered no holy apparitions on the stage on Saturday. The audience was dominated, however, by young angels.

They listened attentively, and interrupted the music only to clap when the wicked witch got baked in her own oven. There may be hope.
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