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.
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
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.