It's no fairytale

Scottish Opera's Hansel and Gretel makes few concessions to childhood. By Raymond Monelle
It has been said that the 19th century was unable to capture the idea of childhood, but only the regret for childhood lost. Hansel and Gretel is a prime example, with its rich chromatic invention, its echoes of Siegfried and its Rosenkavalier nostalgia. You wonder what generations of children can have made of it. However, here were the latest batch, come to hear Scottish Opera's production of Humperdinck's opera, looking adorable and slightly bemused.

The director, Mark Tinkler, has made no compromises for them. There are no angels, no cosy cottage and no gingerbread house, and the designs of Richard Aylwin are rather severe, grey and brown and full of symbolism; the witch's house is an egg, emblem of creation and immortality. You can't go for spectacle if you are on a low budget, and for once this is a good thing.

It gives us a thoroughly adult view of the piece, clinched when the "pantomime of angels" at the end of Act 2 has the sleeping children visited successively by the seven ages of man, from a pair of tiny children (real ones) to an ancient Darby and Joan. The passing of innocence, the sadness of growing old, the cycle of birth and death could not be more poignantly shown.

There is no attempt to make the principals seem childish. Catriona Smith, as Gretel, has a pleasant light voice and excellent diction - every word audible. As for the Hansel, nothing could make you hear a young boy in Claire Bradshaw's sensual and sophisticated mezzo.

The Witch (Elizabeth Vaughan) is the only survivor from storyland. She looks like an evil Mary Poppins and she snarls, cajoles, cackles and smirks with enormous relish, dispatching her long solo scene as though it were high Verdian drama.

David Pountney's translation is fresh and unsentimental, but it gives a kind of colloquial modernism to the parents that exiles them from any imaginable fairytale. "What the hell d'you think you're doing?" asks the Mother when she sees the children's antics. Still, Anne Mason does her best to project real poverty and hopelessness: the Father, Russell Smythe, is a stock lovable drunkard. The Sandman (Ann Archibald, singing resinously but dressed as a female) and the Dew Fairy (Lisa Milne, a bit correct and academic) both look like something out of Chekhov.

The conductor, Guido Ajmone-Marsan, decided to indulge in acres of expansive warmth, rolling from tempo to tempo as though he had just recorded a Bruckner cycle. The orchestra still sounded tentative and stiff, a common first- night malaise. There were other teething problems; with an inner proscenium, the singers sometimes could not hear the accompaniment and came in flat. But one senses the makings of a fine production of this magnificent piece.

n Hansel and Gretel is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow until 10 Feb. Booking: 0141-332 9000