Humperdinck's Hansel Und Gretel: Vivid Storytelling, Characterful Singing and Sumptuous Orchestral Playing Are All Vital to Bring This Fascinating Fairytale Opera to Life, Says Andrew Mellor as He Sets out on His Quest for the Finest Recordings

By Mellor, Andrew | Gramophone, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Humperdinck's Hansel Und Gretel: Vivid Storytelling, Characterful Singing and Sumptuous Orchestral Playing Are All Vital to Bring This Fascinating Fairytale Opera to Life, Says Andrew Mellor as He Sets out on His Quest for the Finest Recordings


Mellor, Andrew, Gramophone


Much of the writing on Hansel und Gretel--be it critical, musicological, dramaturgical or purely responsive--has an undertone of surprise. It's the surprise of two raised eyebrows, an ever-so-slight bafflement that the opera is still so cherished and even a grudging reluctance to admit it into the operatic pantheon, despite acknowledgement of its wondrous qualities. Maybe we're still a little embarrassed that the story of two children, a witch and a gingerbread house should enjoy such staying power in buildings that the likes of Gluck and Wagner worked so hard to make sanctuaries of psychology and profundity.

Of all those sanctuaries, there can be none more symbolic than Bayreuth. It was at Wagner's festival theatre in 1882 that an opera audience got its first taste of Engelbert Humperdinck, courtesy of a bridge passage the composer hastily fashioned to cover a scene change in Parsifal, helping his mentor out of a fix. Those months working at Bayreuth were vital for Humperdinck. The composer said at the time that he would 'willingly give up originality' if he could write choruses as well as Wagner. But when Humperdinck discovered what he really could do, it proved enough for him to half-mock Wagner, describing his fairytale opera Hansel und Gretel as a 'Festival Drama for the Consecration of a Nursery'.

That was a prescient comment, given the frequency with which you read the phrase 'Wagner for kids' (or similar) in relation to Hansel und Gretel. But Humperdinck's world is no child-friendly imitation of Lohengrin and Parsifal. He achieved different ends from Wagner via different means--however similar his processes might appear and whatever he might have taken from his senior's endless melodies, weaving transitions and luxurious orchestral upholstery. Children enjoy Hansel und Gretel because it tells a story about these characters and does so with dramatic clarity, the same reason that most adults enjoy it. All those moments we compare to moments in Wagner--the smashing of the milk jug (the shattering of Wotan's spear), the Witch's Ride (the Ride of the Valkyries), the song of the cuckoo (the song of the Woodbird)--prompt an acute theatrical reaction because of their musical directness and originality. There are no meta-narrative strings attached. Unless, that is, you want there to be.

And yet the music's beauty remains so unspeakably intense. Perhaps Humperdinck's librettist sister Adelheid Wette knew her brother would deliver when she asked him, innocently enough, to score some folk tunes for a play based on the Brothers Grimm tale to be staged informally in her own house. The almost naive, folk-derived notes that Humperdinck assigns to the 'Mit den Fusschen tapp tapp tapp!' dance and the Witch's 'Hocus pocus, Hexenschuss' are woven into the fabric of the opera with seamless and, yes, Wagnerian skill. But the true wonder of those motifs is what they communicate phonetically. The seven notes of 'Hocus pocus'--straightforward enough, related to the opera's central motif in their perfect-fifth rooting--speak absolutely and unequivocally of an evil witch's spell, however much you know about music; and the composer's storybook weave hardly halts in Hansel und Gretel, whether or not it's churning away at relevant themes like that one. Humperdinck's pure, even innocent conveyance of a pivotal event or a dramatic truth is all his own. It has, in the words of the critic Robin Legge, 'a poetry more enchanting than anything of the kind achieved by Wagner'.

HANSEL ON DVD

That's not to say that a child's understanding of an opera is the same as an adult's, even if the basics are consistent. You might argue, for example, that slapping a parallel conceptual narrative on top of an opera can alienate members of the audience who haven't seen said opera a few times before. But to do so on top of Hansel und Gretel is so often fatal when you consider not only the straight-talking score, but also the unique nature of this opera's audience (and, boy, does it still have one: there will be 28 separate productions this December in Germany alone). …

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