Hansel and Gretel, ENO at the Coliseum

As opera performances in London are as scarce as two-headed sticks these days, the opening night of this short run of David Pountney s magical, spell-binding yet sinister production played to a packed and appreciative house. Rightly so. Pountney s production was a highlight of the ENO ‘Powerhouse Regime and it looks as fresh and as disturbing as it was new when I first saw it 11 years ago, now more than capably revived by David Sulkin.

So often this opera can come across as a portentous exercise in heavy-breathing post-Wagnerianism, presented with oodles of cloying sentimentality. Or, put it another way, like crossing a field of treacle in flip-flops. Here, such things are banished, and we are presented with Hansel and Gretel growing up with their parents in a 1950 s council estate where life is hard. Very hard. Father is an alcoholic and, once the children have disappeared into the forest, the Mother transforms into vamp-like witch before our eyes.

In the forest, the children s guardian angels appear as comforting images from childhood - postman, milkman etc - to give Hansel and Gretel re-assurance that they are safe. But who are the figures in rain-macs lurking in the shadows? Combined with the fact that there is a constant underlying nod towards child abuse this makes for a very unsettling night in the theatre. At the close of the opera, when Hansel and Gretel are reunited with their parents, the resurrection of children who have been less lucky is truly moving beyond words.

Elgar Howarth conducts crisply and secures lithe playing from the ever-attentive ENO orchestra, never overdoing the sentimentality, yet pulls on the heartstrings where necessary. Nerys Jones and Margaret Richardson are near-ideal as Hansel and Gretel, Ms Jones looking very much the part and singing with excellent diction. Elizabeth Vaughan as Mother/Witch sometimes goes over the top, but she is terrifying in her transformation and truly horrible as the Witch.

One minor quibble, the evening tended to veer towards the wordless, but in the face of what is happening to lyric theatre in London at the moment, I am grateful, as was the audience to be able to be at the opera at all.

Keith McDonnell