Poverty and hunger: it's not pretty. But tell that to Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, whose new Royal Opera staging of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel starts out so cute and bland that the big moral message of the evening, the one they deliver in act two's Dream Pantomime, fails to tug at the heart-strings as it could, and would, had they got the first act even remotely right. The trick, surely, lies in undercutting the warm glow of contentment that radiates from the prelude of the opera unwrapped here with gorgeous luminosity by Colin Davis and the Royal Opera Orchestra. But, when the curtain rises on Christian Fenouillat's spotless set, not even the less cynical among us would believe that our happy, well-scrubbed, protagonists hadn't eaten in days.
An hour later, the animals of the forest, magically transformed into the lost children's guardian angels, conjure up the kind of homely fireside Christmas the children have always dreamed of. It is, of course, a lovely idea, but it could have been a devastating one. I won't tell you what their lavishly wrapped gifts turn out to be, only that there mightn't have been a dry eye in the house had we really and truly believed in their deprivation.
There are no complaints on the musical front: the strongest of casts (with another to come) did Humperdinck's much-loved score most proud: the fast rising young lyric soprano star Diana Damrau spinning Gretel's music with such effortless charm and grace and reach at the top of the voice, and a shock-headed Angelika Kirchschlager making much of Hansel's chesty gruffness and boyish loudness. Veterans Thomas Allen and Elizabeth Connell lent more than a touch of distinction to Father and Mother, although I didn't believe for a moment in their incessant slap and tickle.
I still think that Mother and The Witch should be one and the same (very Freudian, that) but when you can persuade the legendary Anja Silja to don her Marigolds and wield what remains of her scary Wagnerian soprano then children everywhere will be diving under the bedclothes. Not those, of course, who end up in her freezer in readiness for the oven. This is the best part of the show by far, the boxy claustrophobic forest literally spewing out Rosina Sweet-Tooth's kitchen of horrors. Her celebrated recipe for gingerbread children is graphically demonstrated: here's one she made earlier.
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