Part of Antony McDonald’s brief from director of the Royal Opera Oliver Mears in creating his new, self-designed staging has been to produce something suitable for families with children to see at Christmas – an equivalent to Peter Wright’s long-running edition of The Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet (34 years and counting). In broad terms McDonald has succeeded in his task.
He doesn’t do anything radical with the traditional material; we’re clearly in a Teutonic setting, around the time of the work’s premiere in 1893. The forest where the children find themselves lost is of the standard romantic type, imaginatively lit by Lucy Carter: at times magical and mysterious, at times scary.
Gradually it is infiltrated by quirky and increasingly threatening animals followed by characters from other fairy-tales by the Brothers Grimm – Cinderella and her handsome prince, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and so on – who replace the fourteen angels in the set-piece dream pantomime sequence. There are some naughty touches: the Witch’s house is modelled on Bates Hotel in Psycho.
The third act, though, centred on the comic-grotesque, child-eating Witch and her ultimate destruction, doesn’t quite cap the show, partly due to Gerhard Siegel’s half-hearted drag-act impersonation, which scarcely registers as the scene-stealing star-turn it needs to be.
Elsewhere, Hanna Hipp and Jennifer Davis are flawless in their brother-and-sister double-act, neatly executing Lucy Burge’s deliberately naïve choreography and with their voices blending immaculately.
Michaela Schuster is their harassed mother, Eddie Wade their optimistic father. Cameos from Haegee Lee as the Sandman and Christina Gansch as the Dew-Fairy offer further moments of visual and vocal enchantment.
Sebastian Weigle conducts a richly textured, finely articulated account of the score, notable for its warmth of tone and clear sense of momentum.