It has become customary to give recent productions of Hänsel and Gretel a modern and often murkier twist, perhaps mirroring the current surge in popularity of darker stories, and the appetite for Nordic noir in particular. Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette adapted the tale from the original Grimm brothers, lightening it considerably in the process, for her own children to perform with some songs composed by her brother. The opera eventually followed. Scottish Opera’s new production from Bill Bankes-Jones, who has also provided a fresh translation, took us firmly back to Humperdinck’s original conception, with a traditionally told story. No modern housing estates here, or even male witches.

Gretel (Ailish Tynan) with The Witch (Leah-Marian Jones), © Richard Campbell
Gretel (Ailish Tynan) with The Witch (Leah-Marian Jones),
© Richard Campbell

Designer Tim Meacock produced a simple but effective set of large, planked tree trunks soaring skywards, which shifted about uncannily in the forest scenes, unnerving the lost children. It was enhanced, in the opera’s genuinely frightening centrepiece, by spectacularly eerie lighting from Mark Doubleday. A simple hut in the woods with Germanic rustic furniture in Act One gave way to the forest, and eventually to the gingerbread house in Act Three. Indeed, the appealing look and feel of the opera was very much something one would expect to find in an illustrated version of the book for younger children.

Estonian Kai Rűűtel was a convincingly boyish Hänsel and Ailish Tynan a sweet Gretel. Both were very finely sung and they connived well together, particularly so in the lively dances, which were choreographed by Kally Lloyd Jones. Their mother Gertrude, sung by Shuna Scott Sendall, sent them out to gather strawberries, while their father Peter, Paul Carey Jones in glorious voice, returned after an unexpectedly good day selling brooms.

Fairy stories have to be told well to be effective, and there were some nice touches. As the children fell asleep in the forest, they were watched over by the fourteen angels from their dreams who appeared in white with gold wings, in an unforgettable tableau at the end of Act Two. In the morning, Hänsel was superbly mulish, as any boy would be being pulled from his slumbers by an over-eager sister.

The witch, comically sung by Leah-Marian Jones, gave us a real star turn of a performance in a red and while candy-striped dress, imprisoning Hänsel and holding his sister literally spellbound before getting her fiery comeuppance.

Emmanuel Joël-Hornak, conducting the Scottish Opera Orchestra, took a while to get things going, with some patchy intonation in the overture and a few early differences in timing between pit and stage. However, the well-loved tunes and charm of this enjoyable and finely sung production quickly won over a busy Theatre Royal in Glasgow where there was plenty of loud cheering at the end. Great fun.