It should have been predictable from the cast list for the Royal Opera’s new Hänsel und Gretel: the show was comprehensively stolen by Michaela Schuster as the Mother. From the moment she appeared at the window of the cottage in the woods, she was magnetic: as furious parent of cowering children, as desperate mother unable to hold things together any longer, as recipient of the fruits of the Father’s labour whose joy turns to terror. If this was supposed to be a light opera, no-one sent Schuster the memo: she gave us full-on Wagnerian dramatic singing of the highest order.

Hanna Hipp (Hänsel), Jennifer Davis (Gretel) © ROH | Clive Barda
Hanna Hipp (Hänsel), Jennifer Davis (Gretel)
© ROH | Clive Barda

The Royal Opera Orchestra’s three Ring Cycles must have provided them with the best possible warm-up for Engelbert Humperdinck’s music, which is full of Wagnerian richness of timbre and laced with themes that may not be direct Wagner quotes but are decidedly reminiscent (the giant footsteps of Fasolt and Fafner echo through this score). Under the baton of Sebastian Weigle, they played the score as vividly and gorgeously as they played the Ring, starting with a brass chorale to take you straight into a Lutheran church in the German mountains.

Schuster’s performance became the lynchpin of the whole evening, because director/designer Antony McDonald understands that fairytales work when they play with our sense of light and darkness, with our childhood fears as much as our childhood happiness. McDonald demonstrated this back in 2011 in a wonderful Rusalka staging at Grange Park and he demonstrated it here again: there’s a lightness of touch and a sure-footedness of direction that make this Hansel and Gretel into a truly magical evening.

James Rutherford (Father), Michaela Schuster (Mother) © ROH | Clive Barda
James Rutherford (Father), Michaela Schuster (Mother)
© ROH | Clive Barda

The sets and costumes are executed with consummate style. As we come into the house, we are greeted by a full stage-sized projected image, straight out of our storybooks, of the cottage in the Black Forest. As the lights go down and the overture proceeds, part of the picture dissolves and we see the inside of the cottage, first in happier times, with generous helpings of Christmas turkey and other goodies, and then in the sadly reduced state of the story. Hanna Hipp’s Hänsel and Jennifer Davis’ Gretel are bright-voiced, eager, and play the sibling relationship to perfection; Eddie Wade – standing in at very short notice – makes a warm-hearted, cheerful Father.

Jennifer Davis, Haegee Lee, Hanna Hipp, Isabella Mcguire-Mayes © ROH | Clive Barda
Jennifer Davis, Haegee Lee, Hanna Hipp, Isabella Mcguire-Mayes
© ROH | Clive Barda

By the time the children have travelled through the carefully crafted woods and we have heard a beautifully sung Evening Prayer and Haegee Lee’s equally beautifully sung Sandman, it’s time for the dream sequence (the “Traumpantomime”). McDonald needs to produce something special, because the “fourteen angels watching over” of the libretto can be impossibly twee, but by now, he and Weigle have won our confidence to the point that they can get away with anything. Dancing on pointe in a costume that could be a Wili straight out of Giselle, Will-of-the-wisp Isabella McGuire-Mayes ushers in all your favourite Grimm characters: Puss-in-Boots is chopping Rapunzel’s hair with an axe, Snow White refuses the apple but is disappointed that the slipper provided by Prince Charming just doesn’t fit, Rumpelstiltskin is there with his straw and gold. A small cynical voice in my head whispered “re-run of Shrek” but was rapidly stilled by the rest of me relapsing deliciously into my childhood self.

Closing chorus, with ROH Youth Opera Company © ROH | Clive Barda
Closing chorus, with ROH Youth Opera Company
© ROH | Clive Barda

By its nature, Act 3 is more difficult to pull off: the part of the witch is weighted too far towards pantomime-dame humour, so there’s not enough genuine darkness to counterbalance the comedy of the children tucking in to bits of house. Still, McDonald provides style: the house is a riff on a Black Forest Gateau, complete with light-up cherry on top and vast cauldron of chocolate at the back (you can guess how the witch will meet her death). Weigle and the orchestra get a little on the frantic side, but Gerhard Siegel storms through the part of the witch with comic gusto. An enthusiastic closing chorus from the ROH Youth Opera Company sets the seal on a thoroughly entertaining evening of make-believe.

****1