PORTopera’s new production of “Hansel and Gretel,” which opened Thursday at Merrill Auditorium, has everything — wonderful sets and costumes, excellent singing in all the roles, and some of the best orchestral music I’ve heard from the pit in years. Under conductor Israel Gursky, it even has echoes of Wagner.

All the production lacks is an opera to go with it. Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” has been staged regularly since 1893 because, like “Cats,” it contains a few popular melodies upon which everything depends.

What plot there is makes little sense in a condensed time frame and leaves vast empty stretches that have to be filled with stage business. Maybe it would be more fun in German than in a somewhat stilted English translation.

That said, the cast Thursday night did wonders with what they had.

Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson has a strong dark tone that is perfect for the lazy and sometimes sullen Hansel, who nevertheless has a good heart.

Soprano Angela Mortellaro, as Gretel, is generally as light and sweet as the gingerbread house, but can call upon considerable vocal power when required.

Tenor Robert Brubaker was perfectly cast as the Witch, saccharine and menacing at the same time. In a master stroke of stagecraft, he actually gets to ride a broomstick high above the gingerbread house. One wonders if Humperdinck was poking fun at his teacher Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries?”

Mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak is the only character in the story who shows development, feeling remorse after casting her children into the forest over a broken milk jug.

Of course her manly husband, Peter, baritone Weston Hurt, has to explain to her that there’s a flesh-eating ogre out there. Their duet, in which Peter finally brings home the bacon (sausage actually) is one of the more touching scenes of the opera.

The PORTopera production is full of nice little touches, such as the 14 angels from the Portland School of Ballet, who looked and acted like colorful butterflies, the moving tree roots that threaten the children, or the gingerbread men who turn into real children, in authentic costumes from all over the world. Their final chorus was strangely delightful, like the little frog’s song from “The Cunning Little Vixen.”

The moral of “Hansel and Gretel” seems to be that theft and duplicity win out in the end.

The cooking of the witch, however, is tempered by having her turn into a green gingerbread man.

In terms of the opera’s relevance, I thought of Auden’s line: “We are children lost in the wood, who have never been happy or good.”

Even with a couple of scary scenes, the “Hansel and Gretel” matinee at 2 p.m. today would make a pleasant and melodic introduction to opera for youngsters.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at [email protected]