Hansel and Gretel, Leeds City Varieties

It's good enough to eat
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The Independent Culture

It's A bit of a puzzle. Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel is a real feelgood opera, eminently approachable, with wonderful tunes and a familiar, satisfying storyline. So why is it not performed more regularly? Still, it has been lucky with recent productions in Britain. David Pountney, for English National Opera in 1987, and Richard Jones two years ago for the Welsh National Opera, gave us two different, but equally inventive and imaginative interpretations.

Opera North's new slimmed down, portable version, designed for venues which larger shows cannot reach, cannot rival the visual splendours of those productions. But the director Tim Supple, working within a modest budget, has made a meaningful and touching show of it, with some imaginative flourishes.

Hansel and Gretel is a fantastic, grotesque story that nevertheless begins in the real world of rural poverty, where a family may literally not know where the next meal is coming from. There is no sentimentalising prettiness in this home. This is the hard world of today's underclass. The whole family wear clothes that are torn, shabby and shapeless; the women have dirty legs. You can feel the children's hunger, and the grinding hardship that drives the mother to anger and harshness.

But once we are with the children in the dark forest, where broomsticks become fir trees, we are in the world of German Romanticism. It is a place of fear as well as magic, although the children's prayer at the end of the first half, the voices beautifully blended, was a moment of true consolation.

There was a golden, glowing gingerbread house, but the witch inside it ­ another shabby creature, with old bloodstains on her apron ­ was distinctly nasty. It was, as always, a moment of sheer delight when the children finally bundled her into the red-hot oven, and they had some fun with her baking (she is, as we will all remember, turned into gingerbread). The liberation of the imprisoned children from their cages was another touching moment, effectively staged, and with the reuniting of the family, all ends in rejoicing.

Charlotte Kinder as Gretel and Katija Dragojevic as Hansel ­ both of whom are newcomers to Leeds ­ were, as they rightly should be, the stars of the show. They created a credible sibling relationship, sang without inhibition but with excellent diction.

Fiona MacDonald, doubling up as Mother and Witch, but to no obvious psychological purpose, sang powerfully, but fewer of the words of David Pountney's lively translation got through. Wyn Pencarreg was a benign Father, Claire Wild a cheerful but prosaic Sandman and Dew Fairy.

The orchestral parts had been cleverly transcribed for an ensemble of seven, with Martin Pickard directing the players from the piano. They had to work hard, but produced some lovely sounds. The children's chorus is drawn from local schools at each of the seven venues to be visited by the show. How's that for popular involvement in opera?

'Hansel and Gretel' tours to Whitley Bay, Preston, Salford, Newark, Huddersfield and York until 14 July