The story of Hansel and Gretel is at least 200 years old – the Brothers Grimm, those avid collectors of German folklore, first published it in 1812. And this well-loved tale’s longevity is something that Garsington Opera’s new production draws attention to from the outset. During the overture, a group of shadowy figures drop pages from a book, which Hansel and Gretel collect with glee. The children are briefly distracted by a television set before the menacing men pull them towards an enormous open storybook. It’s hard to ignore the message here: despite more modern, flashier forms of entertainment, old-fashioned storytelling wins out, and here is one that has indeed stood the test of time.

Susan Bickley as the Witch © Mike Hoban
Susan Bickley as the Witch
© Mike Hoban

Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera version – which premièred in 1893 under Richard Strauss’ baton – has long been a German Christmas favourite with the young and old alike, with its playful score mixing in elements of folk music and hymns. And that alluring image of a gingerbread house is nothing if not persistent, appealing both to the imagination and to a basic desire for instant gratification. But is this simply a cautionary tale against the pitfalls of greed and laziness? Garsington’s outstanding and insightful production, directed by Olivia Fuchs, proves that Hänsel und Gretel is much more than a fairy-tale – it is a universal story of the transitions we undergo from innocence to experience. When these two children emerge victorious from an ordeal in the forest, they have grown a little older and a little wiser to the fact that appearances can be deceiving.

Niki Turner’s designs for this Hänsel und Gretel are absolutely magical, with an incredible life-sized pop-up book concealing cleverly folded houses between its pages, and heaps of larger-than-life cakes and sweets. The costumes are fabulous, from the Dew Fairy (Ruth Jenkins) in a steampunk incarnation with strings of clocks hanging off her leather jacket, to the Sandman (Rhiannon Llewellyn) made up as a terrifically creepy forest spirit. And of course, there is the crucial witch, who delivers the famous line: “Nibble nibble, little mouse, who’s that nibbling at my house?” Played by Susan Bickley, she oozes with evil charm like a poisonous pink cupcake, topped by a cotton-candy hairdo. Even the subtle lighting work adds to the production’s sense of wonder and magic, making transitions between the menacing forest at night to an enticing gingerbread house in the golden dawn all the more atmospheric.

But the threat of the dark woods is never out of sight, and its barren, unfriendly branches remain constantly on the edges of the stage as a reminder. So do the forces of cruelty and anger hover ominously over Hansel and Gretel’s house, where we first find them at work, hunger gnawing at their bellies. Their father is a violent drunkard – played by baritone William Dazeley, who carries the task of being the only male voice in the opera, and who puts in a brilliant performance during his drunken, stumbling entrance. He is utterly convincing as a dangerous man, who sports with his wife by nearly burning her hand on a hot stove. Yvonne Howard, no stranger to the role (she has played the part several times at the Royal Opera House) strikes a heartbreaking note as the strict mother, clearly at her wit’s end from poverty and exhaustion. It is no wonder the two children are loathe to return home from the forest.

Claudia Huckle and Anna Devin both put in outstanding performances as the leading pair. From their perfectly believable childish dancing in the first scene to their sincere terror when figures in creepy animal masks prowl at night, they capture the sense of helplessness that face two babes lost in the woods. Devin’s Gretel was beautifully sung, with a control that always hinted she was singing nowhere near the limits of her vocal power. She treated us to a wonderfully tender moment in Act III’s “Wo bin ich?” when she awakes after a night in the woods. Huckle as Hansel was appropriately boyish in her mannerisms – surely an achievement given the way this trouser role struggles against a libretto that keeps emphasising Hansel’s budding masculinity. Huckle’s contralto voice gave us beautifully rich tones, although sadly she was occasionally overpowered by the Garsington Opera Orchestra (conducted by Martin André) – which impressed throughout with its volume and boisterousness.

After a joyful finale with the enthusiastic young members of Trinity Boys Choir and Old Palace School Choir, it was time for Hansel and Gretel to leave the enchantments of the forest behind and return home to reality. Despite the chill of evening setting in, it was not without regret that I left the auditorium, with the wondrous images and fantastical score still lingering in my mind.