This reviewer fully expected not to enjoy today’s matinee, having read the recent Guardian review and heard mixed reports from friends who saw it when it first came out. Apart from a couple of minor quibbles – why doesn’t the mother knock the milk jug over as indicated in the score? And why when Hansel is stuck under the Witch’s kitchen unit does his foot appears in one drawer unbelievably far away from his finger which appears in another drawer – was this supposed to be funny? - today’s performance gave only pleasure. It was magnificently sung, particularly by Christine Rice (Hansel) whose vibrant mezzo filled the house. Ailish Tynan’s Gretel was an equal match with her voice soaring easily to the top D at the beginning of Act 3 and Thomas Allen was, as ever, in fine lusty voice as the father.

Christine Rice as Hansel and Ailish Tynan as Gretel © 2010 The Royal Opera / Johan Persson
Christine Rice as Hansel and Ailish Tynan as Gretel
© 2010 The Royal Opera / Johan Persson

It is true that most criticisms have not been musical but have been about the production; particularly about the smallness of the Witch’s sweetie house (and why shouldn’t it be miniature? Doesn’t a complaint about this merely display an attachment to a pre-conceived idea?) and about the children hanging on meat hooks in the fridge. The question I always ask myself is: on a first exposure to this opera does the production create clarity or confusion? Does it allow the work to shine? Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s production with Christian Fenouillat’s sets is wonderfully clear, displays clever solutions to the staging e.g. the nifty transformation of the forest into the Witch’s kitchen, and by exposing some of the horrors of the fairytale, redresses the balance from what can be a tendency to sentimentality inherent in Wette’s original text and Humperdinck’s lush score. There was, for example, a palpable tension created in the Witch’s scene due in no small part to Jane Henschel’s sugary and sinister portrayal of the role. It is possible that it is adults (including other reviewers) imagining that children will be too scared which has discouraged them from making this a family Christmas treat (there were many empty seats). As the American Psychologist, Hillman says, if children feel safe with their parents, exposure to the dark side of fairytales can enable them to be psychologically healthier in adulthood. Today’s audience which did include many children, cheered enthusiastically when the Witch was dispatched into her own oven and booed her when she came on for her bow, in the time-honoured manner of a pantomime. I can only guess that those children, as indeed did I, experienced some sort of catharsis and emerged cleansed and enriched. If you are reading this and still haven’t seen this production, I urge you to go!