The Prelude is beautiful and comforting, the melodies, probably recognised by many in the audience, delicious morsels in a Wagnerian soup. This orchestra knows what to do with Wagner, and Christoph Altstaedt, the conductor on this occasion, is very much in charge. Some might have been reminded of the Evening Prayer which would come in Act 2, much fished out as a party piece for young sopranos and trebles, and might have relished the thought of a tale in which cute, religious sentimentality modifies the true horror of the Grimm original.  What follows is surprising, perhaps. Witty and perceptive, certainly.

Katie Bray (Hansel) and Fflur Wyn (Gretel) © Robert Workman
Katie Bray (Hansel) and Fflur Wyn (Gretel)
© Robert Workman

Katie Bray as Hansel and Fflur Wyn as Gretel gambol about in a dismal room which might have come out of a film by Ken Loach, with no food in the fridge, and making videos of each other with a sophisticated piece of equipment which projects sharp images on to walls. The creative use of technology is crucial for this performance, as it was for the first in this Opera North trilogy of fairy tales, The Snow Maiden. Huge close-ups of their faces singing and also gurning flip quickly around the stage. They point the camera at each other and at themselves, like teenagers on Facebook, and it took me a little while to get used to the idea. Are they representing adolescence, which does not quite fit, or what? It soon becomes clear that The Blair Witch Project is in mind, the 1999 horror film about a fictional group of students who disappear in a witch-infested wood while making a documentary about a local legend, which is full of hand-held camera shots. It might be a clever in-joke, thanks, I guess, to director Edward Dick, but it works. The camera is placed craftily on the floor later on (Video Designer Ian William Galloway), focussing through various objects to create a whole forest on the wall, ghostly and threatening, so that the characters never really leave that claustrophobic room.

Katie Bray (Hansel) and Fflur Wyn (Gretel) © Robert Workman
Katie Bray (Hansel) and Fflur Wyn (Gretel)
© Robert Workman

The production is influenced by commentaries on the tale by various Freudian psychoanalysts, made during the last century or so. Peter, the father (Stephen Gadd’s distinctively warm baritone makes him really endearing) makes sporadic amounts of money from selling brooms, which turn out to be quite phallic, the sort suitable for witches to ride on, and the witch who gets pushed into the oven represents the wicked mother getting her comeuppance, which is made absolutely clear by the fact that Susan Bullock plays both parts. She is a far more worrying character as Gertrud, the mother, than the inhabitant of the edible house, here a riot of junk food wrappers appearing on the walls and the door. She terrorises her starving offspring with threats of beatings, an abusive woman at the end of her tether. As the witch, she smartens up, puts on a wig, and waltzes around to general delight from the audience, a well-judged pantomime child-eater and show-stealer who can deliver the decibels but who is never tempted to go over the top.  

Katie Bray (Hansel) and Susan Bullock (The Witch) © Robert Workman
Katie Bray (Hansel) and Susan Bullock (The Witch)
© Robert Workman

Amy Freston is an amusing and sprightly Dew Fairy, who trips too briefly through the action in Act 3, squirting an aerosol can as a wake-up call and pushing a carpet sweeper like a woman in a television commercial. She also makes a fleeting appearance in the Dream Pantomime, which is strangely moving, thanks not only to Humperdinck’s enchanting music, but to a film sequence which goes with it, no doubt made on a sunny day last summer on what looks like a Scarborough beach. It is realistic, in a documentary style, with actual children licking ice-creams. The angels were smiling, benevolent adults.

Mezzo Katie Bray was a notable Rosina for Opera North two years ago in The Barber of Seville, and here in trousers (or rather tatty jeans) as Hansel she is similarly full of charm and zest. Fflur Wyn‘s sparkling performance as Gretel makes her an ideal loving sibling. David Pountney’s translation is clunky in places, sometimes almost doggerel, but it seems appropriate, enhancing the comic aspects of the opera. The real child singers who appeared for the final section on the first night brought several people sitting near me to tears (loving mothers?) and reminded us of how lucky Opera North is to have such a talented Children’s Chorus. I could add such a well-developed Education section – which is going to make a real feast of this opera all around the country.