Hansel and Gretel, Grand Opera House, Belfast Australian Chamber Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 50 Years of Minimalism, Kings Place, London

A feisty staging of Humperdinck's opera lollipop is high on shock as well as sugar

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The Independent Culture

A site-specific Tosca under its belt, and a co-production of Orpheus in the Underworld currently playing in London's Young Vic, Northern Ireland Opera claimed ownership of Belfast's Grand Opera House last weekend with Oliver Mears's production of Hansel and Gretel.

The trappings were modern: a white melamine flat-pack kitchen, a fridge decorated with alphabet magnets, the fat-knotted school ties and untucked shirts of feisty latchkey kids. But the themes were as old as the Grimm brothers' source material.

Written in 1892, a decade before Freud expounded his theory of sexuality, Humperdinck's Wagnerian lollipop is the ultimate opera for the orally fixated. Appropriate, then, that the Ulster Orchestra's toothsome account of the overture under David Brophy was accompanied by a descant of popping drinks cans and rustling sweets. Never mind the irony, this was a panto audience, eager for action, words, song. Mears's joyfully violent staging caught their attention instantly, every syllable of David Pountney's allusive translation crisp in the mouths of a largely home-grown, expertly balanced cast, the locally sourced Angels and Gingerbread Children heaven-sent.

Thrift is a virtue in this production, as the humdrum domestic items in Simon Holdsworth's set are transformed by dreams. Rearranged for Act III, the letters on Hansel and Gretel's empty fridge spell "Satan Gender Hell" as dutiful Gretel (Aoife O'Sullivan) and her lazy brother (Niamh Kelly) are seduced by visions of cream cake, gobstopper and liquorice. A sugar-paper drawing becomes the forest, a sinister stick-figure the Sandman (Rebekah Coffey). Gretel's Barbie doll is reborn as the twinkling Dew Fairy (Aoife Miskelly), the kitchen a pick-and-mix counter cornucopia.

What finer dish for the starved siblings than a silver platter of tête de maman? What stickier end for Graham Clark's rasping Witch than five minutes in a giant microwave? Are Peter (Paul Carey Jones) and Gertrud (Doreen Curran) bad parents or just hard-pressed? Mears suggests the former, his final provocation the glistening gob of spittle triumphantly hawked over the charred corpse of the Witch by Hansel. Hard to know whether to cheer or shudder. Impossible not to admire the chutzpah of the scarlet splat against the microwave door and the squeal of delight from the children in the audience. Panto or opera, Freudian essay or Wagnerian fairytale, Northern Ireland Opera continues to punch above its weight.

Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra took the Queen Elizabeth Hall by storm on the second and last UK date of its European tour. Cellists aside, the ensemble stands to perform, its players moving with the pulse of the music. There's a tang to the string sound that is almost Hungarian. Tutti chords start with a vigorous assault then swell accordion-like, the tuning bright and sour. It's audacious, gripping, a little brash, a Valentino clinch. But gosh, it makes you yearn for something still and pale, a chance to catch your breath.

Stillness and paleness were in short supply on Tuesday night, heard briefly in the sonata da chiesa quality of the Haydn encore and at greater length in Shostakovich's Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings. Soloists Simon Trpceski and Tine Thing Helseth sparkled in the slapstick burlesque of neo-classical arpeggios and tart fanfares, magnetic in the inconsolable sadness of the elegy. Arranged for string orchestra by Tognetti, Grieg's introspective G minor Quartet became a Janacekian outpouring of angst. Mozart's Symphony No 40 was similarly propulsive, the tempi fast, the woodwind elegant, the violas dark and true. You'd have to be awfully fit to dance a minuet at that speed.

Terry Riley's iconic 1964 work In C drew a capacity audience to the first concert of 50 Years of Minimalism. Long overshadowed by Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, which does the same thing but better, In C is an ecstatic series of contrapuntal figures and fragments that lasts for as long as the musicians want to play it, which was 20 minutes longer than I wanted to listen. Curated by Igor Toronyi-Lalic and starring Katia and Marielle Labèque, 50 Years was nothing if not flexible in its definition of minimalism or, indeed, of a half-century. Riley and Walter De Maria's musique concrète tapes book-ended the first programme, in which Satie, whose music has some minimalist qualities and is ideal for the moonlit lyricism of the Labèque sisters' playing, appeared. So, mystifyingly, did Ravel.

Unarguably an early example of minimalism proper, Colin McPhee's 1934-1938 Balinese Ceremonial Music for Two Pianos achieved the same moonlit sheen, as did the following night's performance of Howard Skempton's exquisite preludes and interludes from Images (1989), losing specificity in the process. At least Marielle Labèque kept a straight face. In Reich's Piano Phase a giggling Katia fell into sync with Nicola Tescari when she should have been out of sync.

Away from the grand dames of the grand pianos we had La Monte Young's 283 is for Henry Flynt and James Tenney's Postal Piece No 10: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, both exercises in dynamics. Less pointful were the works by members of the Labèques' supporting band, Nicola Tescari's noodling Suonar Remembrando: Chaconne and David Chalmin's Gameland for electric guitars and amplified percussion, both written this year.

Having heard pieces from 1891 to 2011, many of them pretty flimsy, I felt 25 years of 50 years was more than enough and left at the interval of the second concert, ears bleeding.

Next Week:

One hundred years of Romanticism – Anna Picard hears the Arcanto Quartet play Schubert and Berg

Classical Choice

Nikolaj Znaider conducts the CBSO in Bruckner's Seventh Symphony at Birmingham's Symphony Hall (Wed). Enrique Mazzola, violinist Jennifer Pike and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra explore Northern Landscapes in music by Sibelius, Grieg and Hallgrimsson at Edinburgh's Queen's Hall (Thu) and City Halls, Glasgow (Fri).