My opera education continues with Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, which was first performed in 1893. I had heard this opera once before, on a famous 1953 recording, but otherwise I did not have much knowledge of it before sitting down with a recent DVD performance. The clips below are all from this same DVD.
The opera has a reputation as a Christmas favourite, and it is easy to see why. It has everything we expect from Christmas: drunkenness, child negligence, starvation, homelessness, nightmares, mass murder, and cannibalism. I know the story of Hansel and Gretel, of course, but even so I was surprised at how violent and gruesome the opera is. (I am even more surprised to hear, in interview segments accompanying the opera, that Humperdinck’s libretto plays down the dark elements of the Grimms brothers’ original. I may reconsider my plans to read those fairy tales to my kids.)
The real reason for its association with Christmas may be the sparkling orchestration, which brings to mind the glitter of tinsel and Christmas lights. It is one of the best sounding operas that I have heard in quite a while. (Consider the overture above as a sampler.) Perhaps part of its appeal is in the contrast between the sparkle in the music and the darkness of the story. I note with interest that the premiere performance was conducted by none other than Richard Strauss, and that Mahler gave the Hamburg premiere the following year. Humperdinck evidently had the respect of his time’s great orchestral masters.
The libretto of Hänsel und Gretel is unusual insofar as it is — almost? — entirely metrical, arranged into rhyming couplets. This in itself gives the music a lilting quality, like a nursery rhyme or a children’s song (and indeed many of the melodies sound as though they were lifted from or inspired by metrical folk songs). The story focuses on the two children: first at home, where they have nothing to eat; then in the forest, where they have encounters with various supernatural beings; and finally in the witch’s candy house, where through trickery they narrowly escape being turned into roasted kid.
The most popular piece in this opera is the Abendsegen, or Evening Prayer, sung by the two children as they find themselves in a dark forest at nightfall. The prayer asks that angels keep them safe through the night, and it has a hushed charm that is quite attractive. It is sung here by Angela Kirchschlager and Diana Damrau. This clip also shows the attending angels come in answer to their prayer.
The story ends, of course, with Hansel and Gretel turning the tables on the witch, popping her into the oven intended for them. This breaks her evil spells, and dozens of captured children pour out of the freezer and cupboards to sing a song of joyous triumph. Hansel and Gretel’s parents show up — sung in this production by Thomas Allen and Elizabeth Connell — and the opera comes to a close with the witch, now converted into gingerbread, being pulled from the oven and devoured by the happy children. Here we go: