Hansel & Gretel

Paisley Town Hall

four stars

THERE is a darkness to be overcome at the heart of all the tales we retell at Christmas, but few are as bleak as Hansel & Gretel with its background of starvation, child abandonment and domestic abuse. David Pountney’s English translation of the libretto for Humperdinck’s musically-sumptuous version doesn’t shy away from that, but his clever rhymes and sly wordplay do sugar-coat it a little.

There were other elements in Roxana Haines’ concert staging for Scottish Opera that made it a feasible family day out with very small children, and that included the involvement of 20 young people on stage. They were a well-drilled Junior Chorus, under the baton of Susannah Wapshott, and assistant stage managers, supplying the props and pictures – made from children’s drawings – that helped tell the tale of dangerous woods, gingerbread houses, and a person-roasting oven.

The other crucial element was the performance of the small cast. Lea Shaw and Catriona Hewitson were superbly matched as Hansel & Gretel, not just vocally – although their voices combined beautifully – but also in their acting of the bossy big sister and devoted, if slightly daft, young boy.

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Ross Cumming was also very good as their father; in his work at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, and now as a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist, the young baritone has demonstrated great versatility and has a fine instrument.

With the Sandman and Dew Fairy well sung by Inna Husieva, another Emerging Artist, the double role of the Mother and the Witch was taken by Shuna Scott Sendall, replacing an indisposed Heather Ireson. She was also audibly unable to call on her full voice, but made up for it with a nuanced portrayal of Gertrude and a deliciously pantomimic Witch.

With the instrumentalists of Scottish Opera and music director Stuart Stratford onstage, it was always clear how the music, with all its recurring themes and Wagnerian motifs, tells the story as much as the words do. Conductor and players were on magnificent form in every department, and the orchestra sounded superb in the space while never swamping the vocalists.

Praise should also go to Renfrewshire Council for the magnificent rejuvenation of Paisley Town Hall. The only regret was that this show, specially made for the reopening programme of events, had just the two packed performances.