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hänsel und gretel

2 may 2020

The stories collected by the brothers Grimm are often literally grim, and need a fair amount of airbrushing to become sweet tales for little kiddies. One of the most prominent sweetenings was undertaken by composer Engelbert Humperdinck, who with the help of librettist Adelheid Wette turned Hänsel und Gretel into one of the most enduring fixtures of the opera repertoire.

In the Grimm tale, the dominant motif is hunger, a hunger so fierce and compelling that a stepmother can talk her husband into abandoning his kids way out in the woods to fend for themselves. This isn't just the evil-stepmother archetype, though this stepmother is evil enough. They just don't have the wherewithal to feed a family of four. And though the father thinks to himself "Es wäre besser, daß du den letzten Bissen mit deinen Kindern teilest" (69) – it would be better if you shared the last little bit with your kids – even he has to bow to the awful necessities of starvation.

Humperdinck's opera takes place more under the sway of intermittent food insecurity. There is a nice pot of something gooey in the family hovel, but Hänsel knocks it over and breaks it. The children do have to go out to the woods, but merely to gather strawberries, which are pretty abundant. And the strawberries are superfluous, because Dad scores a big bag of groceries just after the kids leave.

The woods themselves are fairly neutral in the Grimm story. Birds do eat Hänsel's breadcrumbs, but they're hungry too, they're not malevolent. Later on, a friendly duck will give them a ride home (though I'm getting ahead of the story). The woods in the opera are even nicer, full of sopranos who sing you to sleep and wake you up the next morning. This whole passage, punctuated by Hänsel & Gretel's evening prayer, is the loveliest and most highlight-mined part of the opera.

Once the kids reach the witch's confectionary house, the tale and opera converge. Henry Simon notes that "this Witch is not very competent" (223). She is short-sighted and can't tell Hänsel's fingers from inanimate objects. She also fails to observe best kitchen-skills practices. Gretel swiftly pops her into her own oven, and "delighted with their arson" (Simon 223), the kids commence their celebratory denouement.

Here the stories part ways again. In Grimm, the payoff is monetary. The witch keeps bags of pearls and diamonds around her house, and the children, with that assist from the duck, take the booty home to share with Dad; in the meantime their stepmother has conveniently died. (Suspiciously died, I would say, given the tensions in that marriage; but apparently there's been no investigation.)

In Wette's version, the kids are rewarded when their murder brings a chorus of enchanted children back to life. The final production number recalls nothing so much as the chorus of freed prisoners in Beethoven's Fidelio. Dad appears and joins in, and Mom too, none the worse. It's quite rousing.

But the final chorus does pose the question: why is Hänsel und Gretel one of the obligatory children's Christmas classics? I bring this up because the title roles are of course sung by adults, and only at the end of the opera do any actual kids appear on stage. I can't imagine that a great deal of the action, at least before the witch enters, has been of much interest to the generations of children it's been foisted upon.

The opera's three acts are quite distinct. The first, at home, is fairly talky (in operatic terms; the score is "sung-through," without spoken dialogue). The second, in the woods, is lush, recalling Wagner, Mahler, or the opera's premiere conductor, Richard Strauss. Only in the third act do we get the mugging and horseplay we expect out of Hänsel and Gretel.

Naturally, staging can liven even the first two acts. My impressions here are based to some extent on a curious video version filmed in 1981 in Vienna. The music in this video, from the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Georg Solti, is impeccable. It's a true film production, using pre-recorded playback and visual effects that look cheesy now but are certainly more imaginative than just setting up a camera to record a stage production. The oddest aspect of the 1981 Vienna film, though, is the conceit that it is being watched with rapt attention by an audience consisting entirely of young children. This despite the fact that till the witch arrives, the kids must be bored out of their gourds; and after she arrives, the action could not take place in the opera house, since it involves a lot of trick photography.

At the end of the 1981 Vienna H&G, the kids in the audience merge with the kids newly liberated from the witches' house, and the chorus wells up from the house as well as from the notional stage. The music is as lovely as the visual effect is glurgy. The main attraction of the opera remains what it always has been: the great power and delicacy of the score. It's a high-profile cast: the great soprano Sena Jurinac plays the witch and the energetic baritone Hermann Prey is the father. The title roles, of course, dominate, and are both beautifully sung and passionately acted by Brigitte Fassbaender as Hänsel and Edita Gruberova as Gretel.

I daresay that Fassbaender and Gruberova add a dimension of unmistakable desire to their brother-and-sister dynamic, which is both tempered and made weirder by the fact that both are adult women. Hänsel and Gretel, in this interpretation but arguably deep in Humperdinck's music, are in love with each other, in a way that presses the bounds of sibling attachment in Mill-on-the-Floss-like directions.

All this is to return to the observation (certainly not original with me) that one can easily see why Hänsel und Gretel is a favorite of musicians and opera companies, while wondering why it gets inflicted on unsuspecting children annually. The piece may deserve more attention – certainly more than I ever thought of giving it.

Hänsel und Gretel. In Die Mächen der Brüder Grimm. 1819. n.p.: Goldmann [Bertelsmann], 1989. 67-73.

Simon, Henry W. 100 Great Operas and Their Stories. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.