It was good to see a healthy smattering of children in the audience for this revival of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s decidedly unhealthy production. The perfect seasonal opera it may be, but there’s nothing festive about a torture-porn chamber of horrors where juvenile cadavers hang on meat hooks in a coldroom. More Hostel and Saw than Hänsel und Gretel, this gingerbread house.
That’s not a complaint. Children love the macabre, as the Brothers Grimm knew only too well, and the oven sequence in the opera’s final scene is here richly spiced with comic grues. Moreover, the moment when all the dead children (uncredited but excellent) are magically revived packs its emotional punch precisely because we’ve glimpsed their ghastly fate.
If only the production as a whole aspired to be more of a spectacle. Scenically it is a drab affair, nowhere more so than the first apparition of the Witch’s house – or, more accurately, the unceremonious arrival onstage of a dinky house-shaped party cake. As for the bear-headed Angels, they are are nicely done but shouldn’t there be fourteen of them? There is too much visual corner-cutting and it damages the storytelling, dampens the excitement and makes for a disappointing theatrical experience.
Musically, things are much brighter, although not without problems. The exciting young conductor Rory MacDonald (who conducts all the performances of a run he was originally due to share with the late Sir Charles Mackerras) opts for a brisk reading that nonetheless finds air and space within Humperdinck’s orchestration. Technically speaking the singers, too, are impeccable. What some of them lack is vocal characterisation, and for this MacDonald and revival director Elaine Kidd must share responsibility. Yvonne Howard, Christine Rice and Ailish Tynan are all splendid, but the sound they produce in Act One is too homogeneous for an opera in which they need to convince us they are mother, son and daughter respectively. This sumptuous but ill-differentiated trio of voices will not do.
Thomas Allen gets it right, although as the only male singer he has a head start. His drunken Peter, staggering home and groping his poor wife (on Hänsel’s bed? Pshaw!) is a loser with a heart of gold. Jane Henschel makes a delicious Witch too, and not only after she’s been cooked into gingerbread. For some reason Leiser and Caurier present the Sandman (Madeleine Pierard) as a nightmarish, besuited goblin à la David Lynch, while the Dew Fairy, played by Anna Devin (a late substitute for the indisposed Anna Siminska) is a Disney princess in Marigolds with a feather duster for a wand.
For all its incidental pleasures, this Hänsel und Gretel skimps badly on seasonal enchantment. It’s not only the cheese-paring; creatively, Leiser and Courier have pulled a hotch-potch of half-baked ideas out of their oven in the hope we’ll greet it as a feast. If it's visual splendour you’re after this Christmas look elsewhere, for in other parts of London you’ll find nuts to be cracked and Cinderellas to be shod. There are even Faeries at the bottom of the Garden itself, tucked away in the bowels of the Linbury.