Humperdinck's fairytale opera may contain more sugar in its overall mix than the Brothers Grimm original on which it is based, but as Olivia Fuchs's resourceful production shows, it's still a delicious piece of confectionery when the cake genuinely rises.
The vocal ingredients here are particularly good. In the title roles of the two starving children who discover danger and resilience in the depths of the dark forest, Anna Devin and Claudia Huckle are note-perfect and a near ideal match: Devin's sharp-witted Gretel complements Huckle's convincingly boyish Hansel, whose elegant contralto sets off the charm of her stage-sister's pristine soprano.
Their feckless parents – each with a bottle almost perpetually in hand – are strikingly realised by Yvonne Howard and William Dazeley. When they rediscover their kids at the end, Huckle's seizing of Dazeley's threatening stick shows that the two children have learnt to rely not on their parents but on themselves and each other.
Fuchs doesn't labour this point, though, and keeps the tone relatively light for the bulk of the show – arguably a little too light in the case of Susan Bickley's witch. Looking like a nightmarish cross between Barbara Cartland, and a 50s domestic goddess, Bickley provides sterling singing and a rumbustious comic performance. Yet some of the cannibalistic threat goes missing, especially in the cabaret-style staging of the Witch's triumphal song as she prepares to cook Gretel, in which the five silent "angels", wearing brightly coloured feather boas join in the dancing. It's great fun, but it needs to be scary, too.
Elsewhere, these men-in-black extras do splendid service in moving around or assembling elements of Niki Turner's outstanding set, which conjures up not one but two viable pop-up houses from the open pages of a German volume of Grimm. At many points their watchful presence adds a disconcerting note that feels just right.
Both delivering their cameo appearances with perfect neatness, Rhiannon Llewellyn's Sandman – with an eerie suggestion of Nosferatu in her makeup and costuming – and Ruth Jenkins's Dew Fairy, more saccharine in her appearance – complete a strong cast.
There are odd moments of untidy balance or ensemble from Garsington's orchestra, yet major compensations in the sheer character of the wind-playing and the sweep of the strings. Conductor Martin André keeps up the pace, allowing the score to dance along; and the final chorus of rescued kids is simply terrific.
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