With this production of Hansel and Gretel, The Royal Opera has decided to go for Gemütlichkeit rather than Grimm, so as not to scare the youngsters, and as far as that’s concerned Antony McDonald’s vision is a success. The sets are beautiful, the singers and orchestra give committed performances, it’s not remotely scary – but that is part of the problem. Humperdinck’s Wagnerian fairy tale, like most others of the genre, is largely about fear and awakening, and is as comforting as the original Sleeping Beauty – that is to say, not at all.
We are clearly in alpine, glühwein land here (cue munchkin exclaiming “Is dat where we went skiing, Mummy?”) and it’s all very gingerbread-house woodwork and extravagantly petticoated dirndls for the ladies. The glowing scene of family togetherness and prosperity shown during the overture – played quite lugubriously by the orchestra under Sebastian Weigle – is neatly contrasted with the bleak cottage, although the costumes of the children and parents don’t seem to have undergone too much wear and tear. It’s described as a “picture-book production” although the wonderful 2013 Garsington version made much more daring and definite use of that idea. It’s certainly picturesque, and not lacking in magical moments, though these are too few.
The brother and sister are capably sung but somewhat uncomfortably acted by Hanna Hipp and Jennifer Davis – both have what might be called opulent voices, so they seemed a little mature for feisty children, and a far cry from Garsington’s gamine Claudia Huckle and Anna Devin. Michaela Schuster is another big, Wagnerian voice in the role of the mother, and Eddie Wade (a last-minute stand-in for the indisposed James Rutherford) presents a credible, even quite lovable father. Gerhard Siegel’s Witch is definitely influenced by the unforgettable Glyndebourne version of the part by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, although Siegel’s is more cuddly than vicious. It’s Ladies’ National Dress time again, with even more voluminous petticoats, and of course stripped off in a not-very-teasing routine. There’s not much in the way of action for Siegel to present, and there’s no feeling of Hansel being imminently for the pot, since he’s installed in a rocking chair.
The massive chocolate boiler, glacé cherry and cake knife are all clever ideas, although there’s very little menace around the house. The real magic comes in the dream sequences and in the Sandman and Dew Fairy songs, exquisitely sung by Haegee Lee and Christina Gansch respectively. The interlopers from other Disney versions of the fairy tales are less impressive, but the delicate movements in these scenes (Lucy Burge) and Lucy Carter’s limpid, evanescent lighting contribute to the magical feel of the forest environment.
The chorus of blind urchins, from the ROH Youth Opera Company, sang beautifully and were mercifully not too cutesy. After a slightly sluggish overture, Sebastian Weigle brought the orchestra to life with some genuinely lush sound, rising to all those almost-Wagnerian climaxes and shaping the accompaniments to the singing sensitively, if at times at little too loudly. Overall, it’s not a ground-breaking production but it is enjoyable, well sung and very beautiful – just what you need in the run-up to Christmas.