Hansel and Gretelis a risky opera to stage for the country house summer crowd. If its dark intimations about the dangers of gorging yourself in the woods resonate too clearly then a lot of places are going to go out of business pretty fast. European productions of the work often delight in pulling out its darkly Freudian dimensions or political complexities – perhaps because picnicking and opera aren’t so closely aligned there, so there’s no risk of anyone being put off their quiche. By contrast the recent Royal Opera production was sugary Disney-fare.

Soraya Mafi (Gretel) and Caitlin Hulcup (Hansel) © Richard Hubert Smith
Soraya Mafi (Gretel) and Caitlin Hulcup (Hansel)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Grange Park Opera's new production from Stephen Medcalf, with vivid designs by Yannis Thavoris, treads between a dark and thought-provoking vision of the work and its more comic, pantomimic aspects, with ambiguous results. The darker Wagnerian textures and harmonies of the score intimate the strange undercurrents of this work. The family drama and gothic pastoral evoke the magic of Siegfried, quite apart form musical borrowing bordering on plagiarism. But the preponderance of high voice types – with only one male voice on stage – fills the score with lightness and air, as if illuminated from behind. These two components create a woozy, even uncanny, atmosphere, something cemented in the brilliant textural responsiveness of the ENO orchestra under George Jackson.

It’s a tale of appetites, insatiable and destructive. Hansel’s atavistic hunger is what gets them cast out in the first place, of course, slurping down the milk meant for rice pudding; his and Gretel’s intense hunger, born of grinding poverty, is magnified by the fantastical gingerbread house of Act 3. This production spotlights other strivings, even addictions: the Father tries, in a disturbing and raw moment early on, to rape his wife when he returns home drunk (later they attempt sex to celebrate the bounty he’s brought back); the Witch guzzles booze while singing her big number; Eleanor Sanderson-Nash’s Sandman is straight from a Baudelairian opium den, drugging the children to sleep.

Soraya Mafi (Gretel) and Caitlin Hulcup (Hansel) © Richard Hubert Smith
Soraya Mafi (Gretel) and Caitlin Hulcup (Hansel)
© Richard Hubert Smith

When Hansel and his sister venture out, they don’t find themselves in the woods but rather the metropolitan jungle of the fin de siècle, falling asleep in a thicket of lampposts. Caitlin Hulcup’s Hansel is a scruffy ragamuffin, a street criminal on the model of the Artful Dodger or Gavroche. The fairy tale element of the story hangs over this sinister metropole, grimly Dickensian, like a scrim; the pantomime scene’s ‘fireflies’ are tapers wielded by workmen who light the street lanterns in a dreamily balletic and enchanting sequence, blending magic and modernity, and sentimentality with social realism. The gingerbread house is a pastry shop, and the interior, where brother and sister are imprisoned, is an eerily enlarged version of their home.

Knusperhexe – the Nibblewitch – must be German's most deliciously mouth-filling word, like crunching down on chocolate and pralines. Susan Bullock’s way with the role is vaudevillian, relishing its pantomime qualities, certainly more comic than sinister, chewing up all that chunky text. It's a big voice with a thrillingly bravura sound, even if some of her top notes went a bit wild. Combining her role with that of the mother hinted at the psychological complexities implied in the Grimms’ original, the dread of a stern maternal superego, rendered monstrous in its mirror-image. But this promising thematic thread, which offers the opportunity to unravel the tensions in the family at the centre of the story, got dropped in the course of the show. Bullock’s performance as the mother showed her desperation and exhaustion in the face of extreme poverty in a genuinely moving way, though.

Susan Bullock (Witch) © Richard Hubert Smith
Susan Bullock (Witch)
© Richard Hubert Smith

In the second half, the comedy really takes over from the more introspective and social realist reflections of the first two acts, which is a mixed blessing. It makes sure you skip out into the enchanted gardens of West Horsley Place with a spring in your step, but feels artistically like a peculiar tonal inconsistency in the production, failing to follow-through on the ideas of the first half.

Soraya Mafi’s Gretel was lustrous and sweet, rising to soaring lyrical heights in the virtuosic passages of Act 3. Her lightness contrasted with Hulcup’s more rugged, rambunctious Hänsel, whose darker and rounder sound spoke of that character’s earthiness – very much his father’s son. We were warned William Dazeley was under the weather, but some roughness in the voice could be reconciled with his characterisation, which was abusive and guilty, even if he was a little pugnacious in his approach to the higher passages. Only Lizzie Holmes' Dew Fairy, dispensing fresh milk from her cart, was a bit underpowered, but still creamy enough in timbre. The chorus sang a heavenly, rousing conclusion, glowing with radiance.

***11