It hardly feels like December until every opera house puts on their annual seasonal productions of The Nutcracker and Hansel and Gretel. The family-appropriate nature of these works must seem particularly prescient for Vancouver Opera, which just this season announced a switch to a festival model in order to cut costs. To this end, this current production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel comes in a heavily reduced orchestration for 14 players, and is cast entirely from within its young artists’ program. Happily, this did not come at the expense of artistic quality, and is one of the most integrative, satisfying productions the company has produced in a while.

It isn’t fashionable any more to stage Hansel and Gretel as an old-fashioned fairy tale anymore, complete with dirndls and peppermint candy houses, with most directors choosing to emphasize the darker, more disturbing elements of the fairy tale. Director Brenna Corner splits the difference, presenting a nuanced, whimsical production that at times knowingly sends up the various theatrical traditions associated with the opera. Entirely constructed out of two-dimensional flats, Corner wonderfully conveyed the shifting, dreamlike world of the forest. Particularly arresting were the trees, by turns terrifying, creepy and magical. This was wonderfully supported by the work of Old Trout Puppet Workshop, filling the stage with Maurice Sendak-esque forest creatures that lent a slightly surreal air. A few moments of needless distraction aside (mostly involving a rabbit with a particularly wide mouth), the plot was allowed to unfold unobtrisively. The pantomime scene at the end of Act II, so easy to turn saccharine, was presented with simplicity and elegance.

The production was greatly aided by the young cast, who threw themselves into their roles with energy and enthusiasm. Credit must especially be given to Corner’s direction of the parents, who were especially convincing playing roles nearly double their age. Musically, the cast was excellent across the board – Leah Giselle Field and Peter Monaghan impressive as Gertrude and Peter, Field deploying a highly promising dramatic mezzo and Monaghan displaying plenty of charisma and attention to text. Tenor Ryan Downey displayed excellent comic timing as the Witch, notable for his nimbleness of voice as well as in his maneuvering of his massive costume. Taylor Pardell’s appealingly girlish soprano proved a good fit for Gretel’s music, as well as articulating the sometimes-awkward English text with impressive clarity. Best of all, though, was Pascale Spinney as Hansel, who sang the role with a rich, plummy voice that surely looks forward to many of the great lyric and even dramatic mezzo roles in her future. Despite some moments of hyperactivity, Spinney was a charismatic presence onstage, throwing herself into Hansel’s antics with gusto.

The evening was ably overseen by Alexander Prior, the 24-year-old wunderkind conductor recently named musical director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Humperdinck’s rich score is notable for its Wagnerian influences, having been conducted at its première by no less than Richard Strauss. However, Prior was in this case working with a new orchestral reduction by Anatoly Korolyov, professor of composition at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. Korolyov’s reduction for 14 instruments rather unconventionally includes parts for saxophone and electric guitar – rather than seeming like a gimmick, the instrumentation contributed greatly to the orchestral palette. Apart from a few moments where I missed the Wagnerian wall of sound, this reduction worked surprisingly well and will surely be of use beyond this run of performances.