Opera: Feed me till I want no more

HANSEL & GRETEL

NEW THEATRE

CARDIFF

is about forests and witches, step-mothers and (at least in Humperdinck's opera) angels. But chiefly it's about food and cookery - Hansel probably ranks with Oliver Twist as the hungriest boy since the Prodigal Son. So Richard Jones is bang right to fetishise chefs and tables and plates and, above all, mouths, in his production for Welsh National Opera.

He and his designer John Macfarlane make stunning capital out of this perhaps obvious theme. The grey Mother-Hubbard emptiness of the family's kitchen triggers off the hungry fantasies of a dream sequence in which the children understandably see cooks and a fish-footman instead of angels, and Humperdinck's cloud-staircase turns into a fully laid dinner table. The drop curtains, a knife, fork and empty blood-stained plate, and a cavernous open mouth, uterine but with teeth, form a ghastly prelude to the still hungrier menace of the witch's kitchen - all steel gadgets, and by no means innocent of a quite different sort of physical need.

But if all this is supposed to tell us that starving in a primeval forest is merely a symbol of sexual awakening, the point is mercifully not laboured. On the contrary, Imelda Drumm (Hansel) and Linda Kitchen (Gretel) make a pair of superbly gangly, unself-aware 11-year-olds. They are fresh, awkward, slightly wild in their clapping games and touchingly wide-eyed, as the chef-angels conduct them to either end of the festive board. And when it comes to cooking supper for the witch - a ghoulishly masculine, vestigially paedophile cameo by Nigel Robson, the youngsters are childishly practical, perhaps remembering their mother's admonitions from act one.

This dazzling treatment isnot without its musical problems. It's as well that the action is self-explanatory, since few words of David Pountney's witty translation reach the dress circle. And though Humperdinck - with his relish for orchestral in-fill and his Wagnerian love of horns and middle-range strings - always challenges vocal projection, the conductor Vladimir Jurowski could do more to ease the problem. In the end a tenor witch is a musical error, since the orchestra covers the register he inhabits.

Nonetheless, this is musically as well as theatrically an invigorating evening. Kitchen and Drumm - though their names sound like a percussion co-operative - sing with appealing warmth and delicacy, Robert Poulton brings a certain drunken intensity to their father's account of the witch- infested forest, and Mary Lloyd-Davies is a strong mother who one could wish had more to sing.

Mary-Louise Aitken plays the Dew Fairy, a shade modishly, as the morning washer-up. The gingerbread children, from the Glantaf Welsh Comprehensive School, sing sweetly, and Jurowski has the virtues of his excess strength, getting sumptuous orchestral playing and a solid ensemble.

Birmingham Hippodrome tomorrow (0121-622 7486) and touring to 15 April. Information from WNO (01222 464666)

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