Thursday, January 5, 2012

Plump, delicious Children

In Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel everything appears in two's. Heavenly intervention and malicious intent, there is paternal alienation and deepest love with a search for adventure and the desire for domestic safety; the meaning of being lost through a wandering in a dark wood and being found - different and changed by experience, but only after the brush with danger. It is all done though a magical process of blending what would seem to be impossible: the most innocent intention and the deepest intuitive knowing. Humperdinck's gift of conjouring up childlike experience (with echoes the Magic Flute) and profound lyricism (with touches of Parsifal) yields a unique work, Hansel and Gretel.

The work began as a Christmas gift at the suggestion of Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Witte, later librettist of the "fairytale opera" or Marchenoper. She adapted a series of scenes from the Brothers Grimm, adding her own poetry. Would he put it to music for the children, for Christmas? It swiftly evolved from adaption to singspiel (partly spoken and partly sung) to the universally loved fairytale opera that we know today. The prize winning and serious Humperdinck who had seen the Ring and been invited by Wagner himself after a meeting in Italy to come to Bayreuth, now turned all he knew into a tale for children that simultaneously blends childlike innocence with musical artistry of the highest level. Beginning with two youngsters hungry and looking for diversion with an undertone of the impish and the rebellious, all as the holiday season approaches. They were suppose to have been working at their father's broom business, but played and danced to forget their hunger. There follows a scolding from mother and her tears over the family's desperate plight. Then the father arrives loaded with food and presents only to find to his shock and amazement the children have been sent into the dangerous wood by the now frantic mother. Lost and lured by the temptation of a Gingerbread House (and a feast!) after an encounter with the Sandman followed by one of the most lyrical prayers in all of opera they fall asleep looked over by the appearance of fourteen angels. They are awakened the next morning by the Dew Fairy and then comes final almost fatal encounter the Witch, whose intention is to eat them. They escape and triumph over all obstacles returning at last to home.
Like the subject matter itself, the life of the holiday opera was something of a fairytale. Doubtful of it's value Humperdinck was astonished when Richard Strauss, it's first conductor pronounced it "a masterpiece". It's next performance taken up by no one less than Gustav Mahler. 
Tune in to this weeks Met presentation and a perfect close to the holiday season, Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, this Saturday at noon on KPAC and KTXI .
by Ron Moore

No comments: