Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is traditional fare as the Christmas season approaches. But this new production at Dutch National Opera gives the tale a serious twist. In an uncompromising way, Dutch director Lotte de Beer reminds us who the Hänsels and Gretels of the 21st century are: the children who live in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Lagos or Mumbai, exposed to poverty, hunger and abuse. Her staging masterly juggles between harsh reality and heartening fairy tale in a spectacle that both delights and unsettles.

The stage opens on a rubbish dump. This is where five young children spend the night, sleeping rough on a heap of garbage. As the overture plays, they wake up, forage amongst the litter and, gathered in a circle, start playing. Their games are projected on a video screen: with cardboard boxes and other discarded packaging, they build a play-shantytown. Then, with a bit of earth, rusty metal wire and pieces of plastic, they shape little figurines: here’s Gretel and there’s Hänsel. The transposition is not as straightforward as it seemed at first. What we are going to witness is still a children’s tale, directed by those homeless children: when Act I starts, the modelled Hänsel and Gretel, now life-size, mend their broom and stocking in their giant cornflakes box of a house. As inconceivable as it sounds, the heap of rubbish and forest of shredded plastic carrier bags (sets by Michael Levine), combined with lighting (David Finn) and video (Finn Ross), become convincingly enchanting. But details keep shaking the viewer back into reality. Even in this world created by children, it is valium that the sandman (Hendrickje van Kerckhove) throws at Hänsel and Gretel to induce a groggy sleep.

In line perhaps with the dark undertone of the production, conductor Marc Albrecht draws a beautifully transparent sound from the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra that is sterner than I had remembered Humperdinck’s music to be, tilting the balance more towards post-Wagnerian than light folksong.

Totally unrecognizable, accoutred as they are in rubbish-simulating masks and costumes, the singers do not seem unimpaired in their movements and give strong acting performances in an often physically demanding direction. The singing almost miraculously manages to convey the characters’ traits beyond the masks. Lenneke Ruiten’s soprano has that rich silvery medium that had me convinced Gretel was the eldest of the siblings. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey is a fantastic Hänsel, totally boyish, her singing unveiling a very appealing timbre. Charlotte Margiono and Thomas Oliemans are perfect as the dysfunctional parents, she suitably matronly, he warm and jovial, with beautiful phrasing in his inebriation. The Gingerbread Witch can be cast either with a mezzo-soprano or a tenor. This production purposely chooses for the later and character tenor Peter Hoare, as an ageing paedophile in drag, gives a performance that, under a comical glaze, feels disturbingly threatening.

In the finale, we are still given the seasonal happy ending, complete with Christmas tree and glitter snowing from the sky. Yet the children of the choir who have just been freed from the witch’s cellar look pale and visibly damaged, as are the five kids playing on the rubbish dump. And the public is left both ecstatic and heartbroken. Treat yourself and go see Hänsel und Gretel  this December. Just get a babysitter and leave the kids at home.