What does it take to scare a 10-year-old? Something much scarier than Hänsel und Gretel.
Widely disliked at its 2008 premiere, and condemned by the charity Kidscape in advance of its Christmas Day television broadcast that year, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's Royal Opera House production barely raised a shiver from my diminutive assistants last week. Tutored in suspense and horror by Doctor Who and the Furnace books, and prepped to expect something horrid, neither my son nor his friend were alarmed by the bodies in this Witch's chill-cabinet. ("You can see they're dummies!") Three out of 10 on the fright-scale, then, but full marks for enchantment in Elaine Kidd's revival.
To children raised on the bland flavours of contemporary children's operas (Varjak Paw and The Enchanted Pig came in for a pasting on the journey home), Humperdinck's 1893 score is a lavish, grown-up delight, its broad themes peppered with catchy folksongs and bird calls but undiluted in their grandeur. Though conductor Rory Macdonald keeps the temperature low and the tempi neat, the richness of sound is irresistible.
Christian Fenouillat's pop-up book sets were met with gasps of admiration from my companions, though the squirrel-headed guardian angels in the Dream Pantomime were deemed "random". Behind the sharply angled planes of Fenouillat's forest are industrial ovens and the infamous chill cabinet, but the most disturbing image is the Sandman (Madeleine Pierard), whose wizened face and shrivelled limbs suggest a night of bad dreams, briskly spritzed away by the rubber-gloved Dew Fairy (Anna Siminska).
The rough and tumble of sibling loyalty is beautifully realised. Stepping in for an indisposed Christine Rice, Kai Rüütel as Hänsel bristles with the grumpiness unique to boys on the cusp of puberty, her voice crisp and forthright. Ailish Tynan's Gretel is naughty and doughty, all vocal ping and pudgy knees, the sort of little girl whose hair will never be neat for long. Where Anja Silja brought an unsettling tang of sexual energy to the Witch two years ago, Jane Henschel's interests are purely culinary, her cardigan stretched tight over a fearsome bosom, candy-floss hair streaked with blood, her voice crimped into ear-boxing shrieks. My sympathy for the children's weary parents wasn't shared: to my guests, a feckless, tipsy father (Thomas Allen) and an irritable mother (Yvonne Howard) are more threatening than any fairy story, which is bad news for most of us at this time of year.
I still have reservations about the abrupt lurch into horror in Act III, and agree that the squirrels are "random". But if the target audience gives Hänsel und Gretel a big thumbs up, who am I to disagree?
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