It almost felt like an old-fashioned Christmas pushed back to November. Here at the Zurich Opernhaus, girls in fancy dresses and party shoes clattered on the stone stairs; little boys in button-down shirts scrambled to their seats, bumping into the knees of others already seated. But true to form, Robert Carsen updated his production, assigning it a modern setting and an upbeat dynamic, both of an urban derelict culture and several character misfits. For starters, Hansel and Gretel’s mother lives with her husband and their two kids in what looks like a cast-off mobile home. It’s a 1950s model with rounded, sloped sides, and sits in the middle of a nondescript, but decidedly ugly paved surface that is home to dumpsters, graffiti and trash. So much for the deep dark woods where Hansel and Gretel used to get lost. Here, instead, they are sent to find strawberries in the huge space of a virtually empty stage, whose surrounding walls carried a whole blast of monumental graffiti.

Given that the family is terribly poor, Hansel and Gretel should make brushes when their parents go out to work, but instead, they play and dance in their bleak surroundings. When their mother, cast here as a hooker, comes home and finds nothing done, she accidently smashes the bottle containing the family’s last milk in her anger. Her husband, although drunk when he arrives, paints a slightly better picture; at least he brings home a sackful of food. Hearing that the children have been sent out alone, he warns his wife of a witch living nearby who bakes kiddies and eats them. The mother, oddly enough, has never heard of such a local, despite the forest’s proximity, but such is the suspension of disbelief in opera!

After the parents set out to find their children, eight terrifically talented break-dancers entertained us entre-scène. At the centre of the painted backdrop behind them, there was a signature Banksy motif: two gas-masked children holding the string of a single red balloon. While that, of itself, painted a dismal picture, the dancers’ tumbles, shoulder spins and athletic wonders injected the story with energy that was simply infectious.

When the fearful Hansel and Gretel lose their way, they are reassured by the Sandman (Sen Guo) and Dew Fairy (Hamida Kristoffersen), and fall asleep after their lovely evening prayer, the folk melody that recurs throughout the opera. Their dreaming makes space for Humperdinck’s sublime score, which the large configuration of the Philharmonic Zürich swelled and jollied under conductor Markus Poschner’s baton. What’s more, the dream hosted a Christmas party on stage that featured choir boys, two huge snowmen and six elves, all of whom cavorted around a roaring fireplace.

Hansel and Gretel awake in a place never seen before, and, if you yourself didn’t know better, you’d think you were on the main floor of a mothership store teeming with bling just before the holidays. Gideon Davey’s stage design included some 16 huge fir trees, each one laden with shiny ball ornaments. It’s there that our two innocents gobble down delicacies they find under the tallest tree. In Carsen’s production the witch is transformed into a shabby female Santa, who’s keen to fatten up Hansel with sweets before she bakes and eats him and his sister. But the clever Gretel eventually outsmarts her, and pushes her into her own oven, not only liberating her and her brother, but a band of other children who’d been held hostage as well.

As Hansel, Anna Stéphany gave a fine performance, although at first, her prominent vibrato was unsettling and seemed incongruous with the role of a young boy. As Gretel, Olga Kulchynska was challenged to hold her own over the orchestra, but otherwise, excelled both in delivery and enunciation, and her solo in the last act was a true highlight of the evening. Markus Brück played a boisterous, but somehow forgivable, father in Act 1 who, later, gave a rousing call for righteous action and responsibility. His character’s robust enthusiasm was palpable, and his voice, consistently solid. Lastly, Marina Prudenskaya was very good as the deviant mother, but the constant motion of her stage direction and implicit hysteria of her tatter-clad Santa in Act 3 occasionally compromised her vocal delivery.

Members of the SoprAlti, Childrens’ and Opera House choirs all gave tightly rehearsed and animated interpretations to support the principals throughout, making this production a hit for children of all ages. That said, since the lights went on in the house before the end of the performance, we in the audience were anyway part and parcel of the show.