The idea of making an opera out of a fairy tale was not unique to Engelbert Humperdinck (this is the nineteenth-century composer I’m talking about, not the mid-twentieth century crooner). Actually, in the case of Hansel und Gretel, it wasn’t even really his idea. His sister suggested it to him, initially asking for music for a series of songs she had written for her children based on the fairy tale. (Actually, I can think of two operas from fairy tales right off hand: Hansel und Gretel and La Cenerentola (Cinderella), about which more later.)
Although it’s come to be one of those Christmas things that people do, like The Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah, it’s certainly appropriate any time of year. It also happens to be a lot of fun. Humperdinck made extensive use of folk melodies in the score, which certainly adds to the opera’s charm (I don’t think anyone would not recognize the music to “Ra-la-la,” the dance song in the first act), and the story, of course, is well-known.
Hansel and Gretel are the children of a poor broom maker living in the Harz Mountains. One day, while their parents are out selling brooms, the children, bored with their chores, and more than a little hungry, take a break from their work. Their mother, furious at their neglected chores, sends them into the forest to look for strawberries. Father enters, having found a windfall: everyone in town is cleaning up in preparation for a coming festival, and he was able to sell his brooms at a high price and buy a feast for the family. Mother tells him they are in the forest; he is appalled: the forest is the home of the Gingerbread Witch, who throws children into her oven where they become gingerbread, which she then eats.
The children, lost in the forest and having eaten all the strawberries they have gathered, are frightened at the appearance of a little man: he is the Sandman, and has come to put them to sleep. He does so, and fourteen angels come to protect them through the night. The next morning, the Dew Fairy wakes them by sprinkling dew on their eyes. The children discover the gingerbread house; unable to resist, they begin breaking off pieces and eating them. They are discovered by the witch, who captures them and plans to cook and eat them. Of course, they turn the tables: the witch winds up in the oven (which explodes), the gingerbread children turn back into real children, and Hansel and Gretel are reunited with their parents.
This is a true nineteenth-century fairy tale in the mode of Andersen: virtue is rewarded, evil is conquered, and little girls know their proper place, which is to obey little boys, who are, of course, cunning and resourceful. If you can get past that, the opera is a delight.
The cast in this recording is simply amazing. I first heard mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who sings Hansel, in the title role of La Cenerentola in a telecast from, if I remember correctly, La Scala. I was favorably impressed with her at that point, and subsequently that opinion has been supported many times. She is perfectly suited to the role of Hansel. Ileana Cotrubas as Gretel manages to project a winsome quality (very important for little girls in the nineteenth century) through a full, rich soprano, bringing a lightness to the role that is perfectly appropriate. This is one of those recordings that presents singers who now have major reputations — Christa Ludwig, Siegmund Nimsgern, Kiri Te Kanawa and Elisabeth Söderstrom — in smaller roles. The only singer I wasn’t familiar with was Ruth Welting as the Dew Fairy, a delightful cameo.
This recording was obviously done not only with quality in mind, but a great deal of affection — it’s the kind of work that almost demands that reaction, quite aside from the fact that there is some lovely music here. I don’t know if I would place it on our list of “must-haves” for the basic opera library, but it is a great break from the heavy-duty tragedy of Puccini or Wagner. Maybe you should take your kids to see it next time it’s performed.
Personnel: Hansel: Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano; Gretel: Ileana Cotrubas, soprano; Mother: Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Father: Siegmund Nimsgern, baritone; The Sandman: Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano; The Dew Fairy: Ruth Welting, soprano; The Witch: Elisabeth Söderstrom, mezzo-soprano; Children’s Chorus of the Cologne Opera; Güzenich Orchestra, John Pritchard, cond
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment (orig. Sony Classical, 1979), 2005)