A Proms Fairy Tale: Humperdinck's 'Hansel and Gretel'

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Dew Fairy i i

The Dew Fairy (Ida Falk Winland) wakes Hansel and Gretel at the start of Act 3. Christ Christopoulou/BBC hide caption

itoggle caption Christ Christopoulou/BBC
Dew Fairy

The Dew Fairy (Ida Falk Winland) wakes Hansel and Gretel at the start of Act 3.

Christ Christopoulou/BBC

The Hit Single

Two or three of the opera's most famous tunes can be found in one number. It's called "Brother, come dance with me," and takes place in Act One, as Hansel and Gretel (mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and soprano Lydia Teuscher) are alone at home, ignoring their chores.

The B Side

At the end of Act Two, when the Sandman arrives, Hansel and Gretel settle down to sleep. Before they doze off, they sing the familiar "Evening Prayer," leading into an orchestral interlude called the "Dream Pantomime," depicting the arrival of 14 guardian angels, who watch over the children through the night.

Nearly two centuries ago, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did the world a lasting favor by assembling, writing down and publishing a collection of classic stories, now known as the Grimm's Fairy Tales. Those stories have done far more than give parents something to read their kids at bedtime — they've also inspired an astonishing variety of music.

Disney alone came up with numerous animated, musical versions of some of the most famous Grimm's tales: Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev both wrote ballets based on stories from the Grimms' collection — in Tchaikovsky' s case more than one. And plenty of the Grimms' other tales have inspired music, movies, theater and even TV shows, including Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, The Princess and the Frog and Hansel and Gretel.

But what about Hansel and Gretel? It's a great story, and it's hardly less famous than any of those others. But when it comes to adaptations, it seems a bit neglected. Why no Disney movie? Why not a Hansel and Gretel ballet or a kids' TV classic? The answer to that seeming neglect might be that there is a Hansel and Gretel opera, and though it was written back in the 1890's, it's a hard act to follow even now.

When the composer Engelbert Humperdinck decided to set a few songs from the Grimm brothers' Hansel and Gretel to music, he probably had little idea how far those melodies would travel. The request had come from the composer's sister, and the songs went over so well that Humperdinck was urged to turn the story into a full-fledged opera. He finished it in 1893, and within a year of its premiere, the opera had been performed in more than 70 theaters. Gustav Mahler led the Hamburg premiere in 1894. A few months later the opera arrived in London, and the American premiere took place in New York in 1895.

Humperdinck had never been a full time musician, and his score for Hansel and Gretel has absorbed a bit of criticism. Some find that its Wagnerian orchestral writing seems at odds with its folk-like melodies and naive charm, and there are moments when is sound a bit like a cross between Das Rheingold and The Merry Widow. But the score's unusual combination of elements also creates a uniquely appealing musical aesthetic that has surely played a big role in making it an all-time favorite. And the opera did wonders for Humperdinck. Within a few years of writing Hansel and Gretel, and with his wallet bulging with royalties, he was able to quit his various day jobs and devote all his time to composing.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Humperdinck's opera in a production from the 2010 Proms Concerts in London, performed at the Royal Albert Hall. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and soprano Lydia Teuscher are Hansel and Gretel, with tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerkacke in an unusual star turn as the Knusperhexe — the fearsome Nibble Witch of Ilsenstein.

The Story Of "Hansel And Gretel"

fromWDAV

Witch and Gretel i i

The role of the witch was written for mezzo-soprano, but tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerkacke (right) takes on the part in this BBC Proms production. Chris Christodoulou/BBC hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Christodoulou/BBC
Witch and Gretel

The role of the witch was written for mezzo-soprano, but tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerkacke (right) takes on the part in this BBC Proms production.

Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Who's Who

Alice Coote ………………….. Hansel

Lydia Teuscher ……………… Gretel

Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerkacke ... Witch

Irmgard Vilsmaier ……………. Mother

William Dazely ……………….. Father

Tara Erraught ………………. Sandman

Ida Falk Winland …………. Dew Fairy

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Glyndebourne Opera Chorus

Robin Ticciati, conductor

Humperdinck's opera is in three acts, and begins with a popular overture introducing many of the score's main themes. ACT ONE finds the children Hansel and Gretel in their modest home. Their father, Peter, makes brooms for a living, and as the action begins the children are alone, working. Hansel is tying brooms for his dad, while Gretel is knitting. They soon get bored — and hungry. The broom business has suffered lately, and there's not much food around.

Hansel and Gretel cheer themselves up with some lively songs and dancing. But when their mother, Gertrud, comes home and finds they're not hard at work, she's angry. While scolding them, she loses her temper and knocks over a precious jug of milk — breaking the jug in the process. Furious, she shoos the children off into the woods, ordering them to pick berries for their supper. Alone, she wonders how she'll keep the family from starving.

Then, we hear Peter returning, singing "Tra-la-la" in the distance. When he arrives, Gertrud chastises him for his cheeriness. But before long, they're both in a good mood. Peter has had a successful trip — selling plenty of brooms in the city — and he's brought home a basketful of food.

In the midst of their celebration, Peter looks around and wonders where the children are. Gertrud admits that they made her angry, and she sent them off berry picking in the forest of Ilsenstein. Peter is aghast. Ilsenstein is the home of a witch — the fearsome Knusperhexe, or "Nibble Witch." She's known to steal unsuspecting children, and cook them in her oven! As the first act ends, Peter and Gertrud run off into the woods, hoping to find their kids before the witch does.

A wild orchestral interlude known as "The Witch's Ride" leads into ACT TWO. Hansel and Gretel are alone in the woods, cheerfully picking berries. They hear a cuckoo in the trees, and echo its funny song. Playfully, they start eating the berries they've gathered. Before long they're all gone, leaving the children with no choice but to pick more — or else face their angry mother.

To make things worse, Hansel and Gretel are lost. They have no idea which way to go to get home, and it's starting to get dark. Then, when the Sandman appears, the children grow sleepy. They settle down for the night, singing the gentle evening prayer. The act ends with another orchestral passage, the Dream Pantomime, depicting 14 angels who come down from heaven to protect Hansel and Gretel while they sleep.

The next morning, as ACT THREE begins, the Dew Fairy arrives to wake the children up. As the sun rises, and the mist clears, we see a house made of gingerbread. (And in the production from London, it's not just a house: It's a multicolored miniature of the production's venue, the Royal Albert Hall.)

Hansel and Gretel have had only berries to eat since their mother sent them off into the woods the day before. So, this gingerbread concert hall is too much of a temptation, and they begin to nibble at it. At that, its fearsome owner appears — the Witch of Ilsenstein. The witch tries to convince Hansel and Gretel that she's really a friendly old soul. But the kids seem to know better. So, with a frightening "Hocus Pocus," the witch freezes Hansel and Gretel in their tracks. She intends to fatten Hansel up, to make him tastier to eat. And she makes Gretel set the table for a meal in which Gretel herself will be the main dish!

But Gretel outsmarts her. Using the Witch's own spell, she frees herself, and Hansel, from the magical bonds. When the Witch orders Gretel to peer into the hot oven, Gretel plays dumb and asks for a demonstration. The Witch falls for it, and bends over the oven herself. Hansel and Gretel rush her from behind and push her into the fire; the Witch disappears with a scream.

At that, all her spells are broken. The gingerbread figures surrounding the house turn back into the little children they once were and Hansel and Gretel's parents arrive just in time to celebrate the children's freedom, and the Witch's demise.

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