Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel has always been an oddity in opera. Its music owes as much to the larky simplicities of folk songs and musical theater as it does to Wagnerian Sturm und Drang; Adelheid Wette's German libretto splits itself between the knocking, banging, mischievous schnick-and-schnack wordplay of a Max and Moritz comic strip and a sort of pious idealization of children that stirs up darker fears that what is pure will be sullied. Productions over the years have been downright schizoid, swerving from God-drenched Disneyfications to wry Freudian parables that have cast both mother and witch as the same singer. The opera is a primed canvas on which to paint the producer's private fixations.
In this particular case, the fixation is cake, cake and more cake. The version currently being performed by the Portland Opera is a free-swinging modern update bent on showing the dark side of foodie obsessions. David Pountney's liberally adapted English libretto is less interested in the opera's fearful pieties than in the characters' seemingly constant, aching hunger and the violent anarchy of language in play. Richard Jones' lush staging owes deep debts to the shock-and-awe dreamscapes of Guillermo Del Toro, Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
The effect, overall, is to make the opera into a sort of hyperaestheticized, food-obsessed black comedy. In the show's most arresting setpiece, the 14 angels who guard the children in their sleep are shown as a pack of benignant creeps who resemble, more than anything, the cooks from Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen. The forest's trees are men with branches for heads and berries in their pockets. The witch is played in drag by tenor Allan Glassman—who manages to maintain both sinister force and manic comic lightness—as a sort of off-her-hinges, cannibalistic Julia Child.
Maureen McKay's Gretel is a petulant Sally Draper, and Hansel, as performed by Sandra Piques Eddy, is in near-constant jape almost frightening in its abandon. Weston Hurt's Father is a charismatic buffoon and drunken wifebeater whose portrayal teeters happily toward caricature. In effect, the production is lyricism played with a wink, wonder made childlike, darkness less inhabited than cynically assumed: It's shallow good fun.
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Thursday and Saturday, Nov. 11 and 13. $26-$150.