NEW YORK - If Hansel and Gretel audiences of Christmases past left the opera house checking the bottom of their shoes for gumdrops and fondant icing, Monday afternoon's Metropolitan Opera crowd might have felt grateful to escape without bloodstains on their clothes.

Not that Hansel and Gretel themselves were so lucky. British director Richard Jones marked his Met debut with a weird and darkly beautiful Hansel and Gretel that has mother nearly taking her life by popping pills, father threatening physical abuse, and, in a particularly hilarious visualization of the role of the witch, what could be the start of a career as a world-class drag queen for tenor Philip Langridge.

Though gingerbread is scarce - the traditional candy-laden witch's hut makes no appearance at all - food is everywhere in Jones' world. It's not just sought by the hungry children, it's worshipped. Fourteen angels don't watch over Hansel and Gretel; 14 chefs prepare a banquet for them as they sleep. Clouds of flour and cinnamon do as much for setting atmosphere as the smoke machine does for other stagings.

So alluring are the sets and costumes created by John Macfarlane for this production - which is new to the Met, and set for live broadcast to movie theaters nationally Jan. 1 - that they threaten to overshadow Englebert Humperdinck's melody-rich score. But Jones turns the spotlight to the music at critical points. In patches where other productions crowd the stage with ballet dancers and angels, a mere painted screen drops.

At one such juncture, when the parents go out into the woods to find their children, we don't see their search. Our view to the stage is blocked by a painted drop, and instead we get to hear Vladimir Jurowski turn the Metropolitan Opera's luscious orchestra into a model of precision and power. The Russian-born conductor, thought by many to have a future that coincides with that of the Philadelphia Orchestra, created in the orchestra-alone passages highly evolved interpretations, some of which were nearly drowned out by the Met's noisy audience. (Not by the children, but by curiously chatty elders, who should know better.)

Jurowski is principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and, as music director of the Glyndebourne Festival, is an experienced opera conductor. He clearly hears this piece from both perspectives, attentive to the flexibility in tempos that singers need to suggest speech, but also turning the orchestra into a well-muscled piece of Wagnerian machinery. In a passage depicting the witch's ride, he heightened hellish Valkyrie-like calls from the horns to terrific effect. He made the strings in the first four bars of "The Lord's Prayer" breathtakingly hushed and serene, but also underpinned by unusual solidity. These are the kinds of details that other conductors miss.

The cast is uniformly wonderful, with Christine Schäfer as Gretel, Alice Coote as Hansel, Rosalind Plowright as the mother, and Alan Held as the father. In small roles making big impressions were Sasha Cooke as the Sandman and Lisette Oropesa as the Dew Fairy (cast as a maid with pink rubber gloves).

Like the Met's previous für kinder holiday production, Julie Taymor's The Magic Flute, this Hansel and Gretel (sung in an inventive English translation by David Pountney) might have some traditionalists looking for what they've come to expect: a forest, for instance, in the forest scene. What comes in its stead is genius. Jones puts the children in an enormous dining hall, surrounded by dark, surreal figures with branches for heads. As they sleep, cartoonish chefs with huge faces and flabby necks lay out a feast. The sequence is distorted, as if a dream. And while you might wonder what's real, there is no mistaking the satisfaction that Hansel and Gretel feel when they finally sit down at opposite ends of a long banquet table and get some food. It is perhaps the most palpably meaningful moment of the opera.

Performance information

Hansel and Gretel is repeated seven times at the Met through Jan. 31. Tickets are $15 to $275. It will be broadcast Jan. 1 in movie theaters, including seven in the Philadelphia area:

AMC Neshaminy 24, Bensalem

UA King of Prussia 16

UA Riverview 17 and The Bridge, Philadelphia

Warrington Crossing 22

Showcase at the Ritz Center, Voorhees

Brandywine Town Center 16, Wilmington

Information: 212-362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org. For the list of other sites, click here.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.