The operatic Christmas mainstay Hansel and Gretel, by Humperdinck, makes a long awaited return to the Royal Opera House; it’s first time since January 2011. The opera equivalent to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker in terms of Christmas wonder and that indefinable seasonal splendour, although in the UK it hasn’t achieved that in-demand revivability. Although Oliver Mears, the relatively new head of Opera at the Royal Opera House is using this production as his first in a series of family-friendly productions to help introduce children in to the world of opera and begin their love affair early.

The production, directed by Antony McDonald (returning to ROH very soon for Katya Kabanova) is stunning. The stage is surrounded in a gilt frame with a cuckoo clock at the centre top (delightfully coming to life to sing cuckoo when Gretel sings in the forest seeing a cuckoo), the costumes are bright and vivid and the action is also usually placed in the front and centre of the stage so that everyone, no matter where they are sitting in the opera house, should still be able to get a good view of the action. The sets, particularly that for Act 3 are very detailed, you can really see how much ROH is investing in this opera. The witches’ house isn’t made from sweets and cakes, here it looks haunted, but it’s sat on a huge plate with a slice of the plate cut out and filled with chocolate and for good measure, a huge knife in the top of the house and a cherry on top: traditional fairy tale with a modern edge.

In a recent interview the director said that he didn’t want to terrify children but engage them and I think he has succeeded very well in this; he admits there is darkness, and he hasn’t tried to sugar coat (pun intended) that, and rightly so. This is a fairy tale in the style of Grimm, so much so that at the end of Act 2, there is the ultimate fairy tale tableau: a huge number of fairy tale characters from Cinderella to Snow White appear on stage and everyone is sitting there listening to Red Riding Hood’s Wolf reading from Grimm’s fairy tales. I did feel however that in Act 1, when Gertrud, the mother, tells her husband that she broke the new jug, she immediately bent over and he took out his belt, but because he was in a good mood, decided not to beat her, that is the only part that I felt was unnecessary and potentially too dark. The rest of the production worked brilliantly with some very lovely little extras: in Act 2 when Hansel and Gretel are exploring the forest a large beetle creeps out on to the frame around the stage and starts to scuttle across it and a large bat with glowing green eyes lowers itself from the ceiling for instance.

Sebastian Weigle, the General Music Director of Frankfurt Opera makes his Royal Opera debut conducting these performances. He has done a very good job although I felt at points he good have been a bit sharper and stronger, but he brought out the wonder, the excitement and the darkness with real vigour and passion.

Jennifer Davis, a former member of the ROH’s Young Artists programme, who had a spectacular time last season taking over the lead role of Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin at the last minute, becoming a star overnight, is a very welcome return. Ms Davis is a lyric soprano with some real strength behind her, as well as a very expressive acting ability, she shines here. Hanna Hipp, another graduate of the ROH Young Artists programme is another great actor with a mischievous, delightful voice. I was also particularly impressed by Eddie Wade as the father, as he was covering the role at the last minute due to James Rutherford being ill, but you wouldn’t have known it by his performance including some rather good egg juggling! Gerhard Siegel as the witch brought great menace alongside humour to his role, the upgrade in all senses of the word from the pantomime villain!

This is a beautiful chocolate box of a production, which will make you leave smiling, but with enough darkness and reality to make it even more enjoyable, it deserves to be as regular as The Nutcracker and from the incredible performances led by Ms Davis, I think it will be.

Hansel and Gretel has subsequent performances on 17, 21, 27 and 29 December 2018. For more information, visit Royal Opera House.

Words by Stuart Martin.

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