"Down with the dumps, out with the grumps," sing the two children in Opera North's semi-staged production of Humperdinck's fairy tale opera, Hansel and Gretel. John Fulljames's witty and contemporary direction of the tale by the Brothers Grimm certainly banishes any grumpiness. His ingenious concept has grown, like the silver birch foliage around the platform of Leeds Town Hall, out of the orchestra itself.
The musical metaphor is developed in Soutra Gilmour's designs right from the start, where double bass cases stand straight as trees while besoms hang from a frame like tubular bells.
In contrast to the lush sounds of the overture, a mix of exuberant dances and the hymnlike strains of the "Evening Prayer", life in the broom maker's household is established as a drab affair. Kitted out in tracksuits and trainers, Hansel in a hoody teases and toys with his little sister, Gretel, their personalities distinctly drawn, their voices attractively blended.
Swept along by jerky impulses and super-expressive faces, boyish Julianne Young and naive Jeni Bern make brattish latchkey kids, poking, pinching and squabbling. When Mother arrives home, she's carrying an empty basket in the shape of a violin case. Father, a stentorian Christopher Purves, is a parka-clad drunken sot. Given his violent nature, threatening Mother with a double bass bow (clearly not for the first time), his concern for his children at the hands of a wicked witch seems a trifle out of character.
Throughout the evening, but especially in the vivacious overture and the sinister harmonic colouring of the Witch's Ride, the orchestra brings out Humperdinck's transparent textures, weaving its own magic out of the luminous, folk-inflected melodic lines. The singing may be uniformly good, the emphasis in the casting on fresh, youthful voices, but the orchestra is the undoubted star of the show thanks to Richard Farnes's light touch with this gorgeous score, and some excellent solos.
The children - seen pedalling earnestly through the forest to the enchanting sound of cuckoo-calls - convey the growing sense of foreboding as their voices echo spookily around. After a beautifully unaffected performance of the "Evening Prayer" Hansel and Gretel's "Dream Pantomime" is peopled not by angels, but by a chorus of 14 red baseball-capped, yellow t-shirted helpers serving up gigantic burgers, fries and fizzy drinks. Not quite product placement, this McGrimm's is indeed a hungry child's paradise.
Peter Hoare's Witch is an orange-wigged, floury-cheeked clown in yellow baggy breeches, drooling as he anticipates the tasty morsels he's fattening up. Sinister to adults in his peculiar feverish intensity - "girls are sweet, melt on a witch's tongue" - he seems less frightening to the children in the audience. David Pountney's perky translation comes across reasonably well, though rather too many of the Witch's words sound like the hocus-pocus he recites from time to time.
The Sandman is disguised as a percussion-player at the back of the orchestra pretending to strike an enormous gong with crescent moon. Later the same silvery-voiced soprano, Rebecca Bottone, makes an effective appearance from within the orchestra as the Dew Fairy, an over-dressed harpist clambering through the strings of her fantastic instrument. Inside the gingerbread house, its walls an array of shiny, coloured balloons, the Witch traps Hansel between a gong and a trombone, its slide clamping his arms, its mute popped in his mouth. The steaming oven into which the Witch finally tumbles (I hope I'm not giving too much away here), is a hissing kettle drum. With this spell-binding Hansel and Gretel, Opera North has conjured up a musical and visual treat.
Repeated 18 & 22 January Leeds Town Hall (0113 224 3801) then touring to Nottingham Royal Concert Hall 5 February (0115 989 5555); The Sage, Gateshead 19 Feb (0191 443 4661) and Lancaster University Great Hall 16 Feb (01524 594151)