Review: A “Must See” San Francisco Opera Production of “Hansel and Gretel”- November 17, 2019

San Francisco Opera has enlisted a vocally and dramatially impressive cast for German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”. The expanded 65-member San Francisco Opera Orchestra resounded elegantly in the War Memorial Opera House. This a “must-see” holiday experience, sung in an enchanting English translation.

Sasha Cooke’s Hansel and Heidi Stober’s Gretel

Texas mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and Wisconsin soprano Heidi Stober were convincing as the starving siblings Hansel and Gretel.

Hansel is a role in which a mezzo-soprano must be physically believable as an energetic young boy. She must also be able to project her voice, especially in a large theater like the War Memorial Opera House, over a full orchestra. Cooke, who has already excelled as a War Memorial Wagnerian [Review: McVicar’s Magical, Masterful “Meistersinger” – San Francisco Opera, November 18, 2015] gave an exemplary performance, with requisite vocal power and subtlety.

[Below: Sasha Cooke as Hansel; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This is the second production in which I’ve seen Cooke perform Hansel [See A joyous “Hansel and Gretel” in Doug Fitch’s enchanting producti on – Los Angeles Opera, December 9, 2018.] Cooke is unquestionably a leader internationally among artists performing the role of Hansel, and was particularly striking in this production.

Cooke’s repertory ranges from baroque to 21st century [Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013]. I have reported on two of Cooke’s world premieres, including as Laurene Powell Jobs [World Premiere Review: Ovations for the (R)evolution of Steve Jobs – Santa Fe Opera, July 22, 2017], a role she will repeat in San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2020 season. She is also scheduled in January, 2020 to take part in the world premiere of a new work by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer entitled “Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope”.

Stober adds the mischievous Gretel as the 12th lead role she has sung at San Francisco Opera. Her Gretel was an insightful portrait as a self-assured, graceful young girl, singing beautifully with clear diction.

[Below: Heidi Stober as Gretel; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

An invaluable member of any opera house roster, Stober’s wide-ranging repertory includes the roles of Cleopatra [Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Resilient “Julius Caesar” Showcases Anthony Roth Costanzo and Stellar Cast – October 27, 2017], Susanna [Review: Boogie Nights at Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” – Houston Grand Opera, January 30, 2016] and 21-century works [World Premiere of “Oscar” at Santa Fe Opera – July 27, 2013], in addition to 12 lead roles she has performed at the San Francisco Opera.

Cooke and Stober were the co-stars of a baroque masterpiece earlier this year [Review: A Finely Sung “Orlando” Melds Handel’s Seductive Music with Harry Fehr’s Surreal Staging – San Francisco Opera, June 9, 2019], .

Cooke and Stober exhibited high-spirit in their boisterous play in the first scene at home, enchantment and terror in their scenes in the forest and at the approach to the witches’ house and lethal cunning in their dispatch of the cannibalistic witch. Their voices blended memorably in the Fourteen Angels hymn.

[Below: Hansel (Sasha Cooke, left) and Gretel (Heidi Stober, right) having ventured into the woods, find they can be a scary place; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Robert Brubaker’s Witch, Alfred Walker’s Father (Peter) and Mary Evelyn Hangely’s Mother (Gertrude)

Character tenor Robert Brubaker was both stylish and sinister in the role of the Witch, who injected a cannibalistic theme into opera a century before Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

[Below: the Witch (Robert Brubaker, center) has grabbed hold of both Gretel (Heidi Stober, left) and Hansel (Sasha Cooke, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Alfred Walker, who had made a stunning impression two seasons ago as Orest [Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Elektra” – Goerke, Pieczonka in a Gory, Gloriously Sung Night at the Museum – September 9, 2017], brought vocal power and intensity to the role of the childrens’ father, Peter.

[Below: Peter (Alfred Walker, right) and Gertrude (here, Michaela Martens, left) enjoy a moment of high spirits; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

San Francisco Opera General director Matthew Shilvock announced prior to the performance that Michaela Martens, cast as Gertrude, was ill and that her place would be taken by New York mezzo-soprano and first year San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Mary Evelyn Hangley.

This was my second opportunity to review a Hangley performance, following an impressive Glimmerglass Festival debut, performing the principal role of Anna Sorensen Review: Glimmerglass Festival’s “Silent Night”, Profoundly Moving Content, Stylishly Performed, July 22, 2018. She showed confidence and vocal security in her unexpected San Francisco Opera debut, which proceeded flawlessly.

[Below: Mary Evelyn Hangley; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Ashley Dixon’s Sandman, Natalie Image’s Dew Fairy and the Grimm Fairy Tale Characters

Georgia mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon was immersed in the elaborate mask and costume so as to become the Sandman. It proved a charming, beautifully sung performance, which included some of the opera’s most enchanting music.

[Below: Ashley Dixon as the Sandman; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Canadian soprano Natalie Image added to the delight as the Dew Fairy, who, in this production, carries a watering can that sprinkled golden drops at dawn.

[Below: Natalie Image as the Dew Fairy; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Humperdinck provided musical opportunities through several orchestral passages and especially a pantomime for stage directors to unleash their imaginations. This production created an homage to several of the most famous characters from the Brother Grimms’ Fairy Tales – Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin and Rapunzel, who populated the woods in which Hansel and Gretel slept.

[Below: Joining the Big Bad Wolf (Sarah Yune) in reading a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales are, from left, clockwise: Snow White (Stacey Chien), Cinderella (Holly MacCormick), Prince Charming (Michael Bragg), Rumpelstiltskin (Kay Thornton), Rapunzel (Nina Rocco) and Little Red Riding Hood (Sarah Nadreau) who has covered the children with her cloak ; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Japanese dancer Chiharu Shibata danced the role of the Will-o’-the-wisp. Also present in the forest were two anthropomorphic animals, a Stag Huntsman (Michael Bragg) and a Fox Woodsman (Sarah Yune).

[Below: the Stag Huntsman (Michael Bragg, left) and the Fox Woodsman, (Sarah Yune, right) participate in the dream sequences; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Maestro Christopher Franklin and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Pennsylvania Maestro Christopher Franklin conducted the San Francisco Opera Orchestra with passion, evoking from the opera orchestra a richly textured sound. Of special note was the virtuosic performance by concertmaster Kay Stern of the violin accompaniment of Gretel’s awakening in the forest.

The 20-member chorus of children, freed from the Witch’s spell at opera’s denouement, consisted of Nyara Afshar, Sofia Alling, David Awunyo-Akaba, Janely Castanon, Gloria Cebrian, Lev Corliss, Newton De Silva, Lucas Durrant, Embley Fuchs, Reed Grenager, Aram Kim, Harry O’Sullivan, Kian Perrone, Iris Pradal, Nora Steward, Shaan Swaminathan, Anayah Tin, Tyler Winslow, Violet Wolfe and Brandon Yang.

Scottish Maestro Ian Robertson was Chorus Director.

Antony McDonald’s Production

The co-production between the San Francisco Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden was conceived by British director Antony McDonald. The production is enchanting in every detail and would be a fitting candidate for revival in future holiday seasons.

Collaborating in the staging at San Francisco Opera were English Associate Stage Dircctor Danielle Urbas, Spanish Associate Designer Ricardo Pardo, British Lighting Designer Lucy Carter, British Revival Lighting Desginer Nell Brinkworth and British Choreographer Lucy Burgeons.


I strongly recommend the San Francisco Opera production and cast of “Hansel and Gretel”, both for the veteran opera-goer and persons, including all members of a family, who are new to opera.