Given recent weather it might be tasteless to say that lightning has struck twice, but English National Opera’s second collaboration with the Open Air Theatre is almost a match for its first. Director Timothy Sheader has followed up his windswept take on The Turn of the Screw, one of 2018’s operatic high spots, with a candy-sweet Hansel and Gretel that gives the audience an irresistible sugar rush.

Susanna Hurrell (Gretel), Alasdair Elliott (Witch) and Rachel Kelly (Hansel) © Johan Persson
Susanna Hurrell (Gretel), Alasdair Elliott (Witch) and Rachel Kelly (Hansel)
© Johan Persson

Humperdinck’s opera has not been short of performances in recent times – there’s another one due any minute from Grange Park Opera – and the best of them have brimmed with inventiveness. Sheader, though, has more tricks up his sleeve than most, and his staging is both crowd-pleasing and dramatically satisfying. Connoisseurs of simple but ingenious stagecraft will be in heaven at his brilliant deployment of 14 supernumeraries (their number becomes significant when the children fall asleep) whose knowing eye-locks with the audience provoke shivers of delight. Abetted by the resourceful talents of movement director Lizzi Gee they proffer sinister sweets (never accept, children), plant a forest of broomsticks, help He Wu’s Dew Fairy gather dew from the Regent’s Park hedges and bring delirious pleasure to the inspired "Traumpantomime" in ways I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here, except to say that for me it was a two-hanky moment.

Rachel Kelly (Hansel) and Susanna Hurrell (Gretel) © Johan Persson
Rachel Kelly (Hansel) and Susanna Hurrell (Gretel)
© Johan Persson

Using David Pountney’s lively translation and with Glyndebourne Tour’s newly appointed music director Ben Glassberg stylishly conducting 20 of ENO’s finest in Derek J Clark’s reduced orchestration, a double cast of principals has allowed for an uninterrupted theatre-style run of performances through to 22 June. It includes four two-show days. On press night mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly and soprano Susanna Hurrell were the eponymous pair and, my, how they chewed the scenery. Strongly characterised vocal colours blended with their winning natural charm, and the essential energy of childhood shone through thanks to Sheader’s meticulous direction. Their "tiraliralee" twerk would have raised the roof if there'd been one. Height and voices aside, moreover, Kelly and Hurrell were all of a piece with the superbly rehearsed "real" children of the Pimlico Musical Foundation whose appearance in the opera’s final scene was the icing on a delicious theatrical cake.

Rosie Aldridge (Mother) and Duncan Rock (Father) © Johan Persson
Rosie Aldridge (Mother) and Duncan Rock (Father)
© Johan Persson

Rosie Aldridge, a terrific artist, was a joyous, scratch-card-dependent slattern of a Mother. The moment when her face fell as her husband (Duncan Rock) sang his way home provided an image to treasure. Alas, though, for an opera production aimed at least in part at a juvenile audience there were some odd lapses of taste, and not only in her cigarette smoking. It’s one thing to include urination (although why here?) but Rock’s "nearly" moment of indecent exposure was played as a knowing moment of sleaze. The baritone’s raunchy crotch-grab as he pounced on his wife was even weirder.

<i>Hansel and Gretel</i> © Johan Persson
Hansel and Gretel
© Johan Persson

Tenor Alasdair Elliott was a Witch in the Roald Dahl ilk, but despite the lip-smacking, East-European-inflected verve of his performance the opera’s kitchen antics coincided with a lowering of the creative temperature. It was an unfortunate time for Sheader to have a cleverness lapse. Earlier on Gillian Keith, in other-worldly voice, fared much better as the Sandman for all the brevity of her quirky appearance. The secret contents of her attaché case set up the production’s greatest coup as Peter McKintosh’s magnificent designs went stratospheric.

****1