LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The Royal Opera's new production of "Hansel and Gretel" is schmaltzy, sentimental, beautifully sung and played -- in short, everything it should be, until German soprano Anja Silja shows up as the witch.
Then Covent Garden really starts cooking.
The witch's role often is considered the best thing going in the 1893 opera based on the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale about the lady living in a gingerbread house in the forest who is outwitted by the brother and sister whom she intends to bake into cakes. Silja makes the most of it.
"She is a mass murderer," Silja, 68 and still going strong, told Reuters after the opening night on Tuesday, wasting little time in getting right to the heart of her character in this oddity that seems like an early take on "The Sound of Music" and "Sweeney Todd" rolled into one.
Composer Engelbert Humperdinck (yes, it was his name before the crooner), a slavish acolyte of Wagner, mixed together just the right ingredients of German folk tune, lush orchestration and ear-catching arias of his own invention and hung them onto a fairy tale that disturbs and fascinates in equal measure.
Due to the disturbing bits, the Royal Opera is asking parents not to bring children under eight. With ovens onstage in Act 2 that would comfortably fit just about everyone in the first 10 rows, parents would be well advised to take heed.
But for everyone else, this is bound to be a delight, and not just for Silja's witch, half yummy-mummy Nigella Lawson, stuffing almonds and raisins into Hansel to fatten him up, half Cruella de Vil baying at Gretel: "You're so sweet and perfect for a witch's mouth - Yes, Gretel soon will be a pot roast."
Did someone say only under eight?
The counterpoint to all this gore and mayhem is the charming twosome of the heroic brother and sister.
They were sung to perfection on opening night in the first of two alternating casts by Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirschlager and German coloratura soprano Diana Damrau.
Both were in gorgeous form, making the schmaltzy bits ("Brother come dance with me" -- a definite role model for "Do, re, mi" from "Sound of Music") bearable for grumps, and milking every ounce of beauty from the opera's enduring hits, like the haunting "Evening Prayer."
Damrau, who has thrown herself into the role of the child Gretel with abandon and has cuts and blisters on her knees to prove it, says the story of the two hungry children, sent out into the woods by their near manic-depressive mom after they spill a pitcher of milk, remains a fable for our times.
"I think 'Hansel and Gretel' has for both children and adults a lot to tell -- it is for our times as well," Damrau said.
"Hunger, no money, parents who...struggle and then get a little unjust, this is not because the parents are mean, it's because they can't handle it anymore, it's too hard for them.
"And then it's the story about the children. Children are tough. They're not made out of sugar. In 'Hansel and Gretel' they learn to fight.
"It's they who fight the witch. It's they who stood up together. It's a wonderful, beautiful story. It has its dark side. It's not Mickey Mouse. It's a real story."
Wilf Bairanian, attending his first opera, found bits very funny and, in what has to be considered a ringing endorsement from an 11-year-old, added: "It had quite good tunes."
"Hansel and Gretel" will be broadcast on December 25 on Britain's BBC 2. Merry Christmas, and enjoy those gingerbread cakes.