We have become so accustomed to a contemporary/post-Freudian gloss being poured over 19th-century operas that it comes as a shock to find Humperdinck’s fairy tale being taken at face value. In its 50-year history, Scottish Opera has enjoyed several encounters with this work, so a novelty-seeking interpretation would have been justified – but that is actually the last thing the Glasgow-based company needs in its current fragile state. It needs productions that are bankable and revivable, and the new Hansel and Gretel scores on both counts. It also needs to demonstrate that, shorn of a full-time orchestra and chorus, it can still boast high musical standards – which it certainly does under guest conductor Emmanuel Joël-Hornak, whose impeccable pacing, with beautifully blended orchestral voices and a sensitive ear for their stage counterparts, stands in the finest Kapellmeister tradition. But why do this company’s best performances always seem to coincide with shows not conducted by its music director?
You can just imagine the hoots of derision that sophisticated souls will vent at Bill Bankes-Jones’s staging, his first for an established British company. And it’s true, a naive Hansel was not what we expected of the artistic director of London-based Têtê-à-Tête, a part-time company with experimental leanings. After so many penetrating modern interpretations of Hansel, it’s a huge risk for any opera producer to push the genie of complexity back into the bottle. But Bankes-Jones knows his craft. He listens intently to the music, renders the text in his own perky, well-fitting translation, and unfolds the action with the kind of fidelity and natural characterisation latterly associated with Peter Stein. He also reminds us that the story stems from the Brothers Grimm, an inspiration reflected in Kally Lloyd-Jones’s goose-bump-inducing “dream pantomime” and Tim Meacock’s engaging designs, dominated by mobile columns representing tree-trunks.
Kai Rüütel and Aylish Tynan make a well-blended title pair, supported by Paul Carey Jones and Shuna Scott Sendall as the parents. Leah-Marian Jones, who sang Hansel in a previous Scottish Opera production, is reincarnated as the Witch – glamorous and candy-like, with a vivid cackle. She sets the seal on a memorable night.