24 Jan 2011

The Woods are Lovely…

by Paula Fowler

A story changes—slightly or dramatically, intentionally or not—every time it is retold.  This is true whether the re-telling happens orally, or on stage, or on film.  And every audience member for each re-telling has an opinion about whether the re-creation was successful.  Re-tellings survive only if audiences like them.

I find (like most of you, I suspect) that movie versions of novels are generally disappointing, and I am tempted to be upset by the changes made for Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera version of “Hänsel und Gretel.”  The plot is stripped of many dramatic elements in the original tale written down by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, and I also see the justification for arguments by some music critics that Humperdinck’s elaborate Wagnerian style of composition clashes with the simplicity of the fairy tale.  But this opera has been successful since its first production on December 23, 1893.  Audiences have loved it for over a hundred years, and I do too.

The work of this opera began when Adelheid Wette, Humperdinck’s sister, asked her brother to compose four songs to accompany a puppet show her two daughters were putting together for a performance at home.  The evening was such a success that Humperdinck decided to make an opera based on the original pieces, expanding the four songs to a Singspiel (with spoken dialogue connecting the musical numbers) and then to a fully-sung opera.  For this project that became known as the “family headache,” Adelheid served as librettist and created a “kinder, gentler” version of the Grimm Brothers’ tale.

Frau Wette deleted troublesome plot details.  In her version of the story, Hänsel and Gretel’s mother no longer purposefully loses them in the woods, hoping they’ll die; nor does the witch eat the children she captures.  Improving the family’s impoverished home life no longer depends upon Hänsel and Gretel gathering jewels after the witch is dead.  And at the end of their adventure the children do not have to find their way out of the forest and across a river in order to reach home.  All fearful and dangerous elements disappeared in Frau Wette’s re-telling.

Instead, the mother in the opera is merely distressed with the family’s poverty and sends her kids out of the house to collect berries, mainly to get them out of her hair.  Hänsel and Gretel get lost in the woods all on their own, without parental misdirection.  And as for the family finances, we see them remedied by the father at the end of the first scene.

In her gentling process, Frau Wette not only deleted scary parts of the story; she also added elements not found in the original, many of them supernatural comforts.  The siblings don’t have to be frightened in the woods, because fourteen angels, plus a Sandman and a Dew Fairy, watch out for them.  Their father’s comforting maxim used as a “leitmotif” tells us not to worry about them either:  “When we cannot bear our grief, then the Lord will send relief.”  This music appears not only in the children’s famous Evening Prayer, but also in the Prelude and the conclusion of the opera.  This is the heavenly assurance with which the two children go to sleep the evening before they meet the witch, and which cushions the entire opera for the audience.

The experience with the witch is made less frightening too:  for the sake of stage production, Hänsel and Gretel’s four-week enslavement to the witch’s whims in the story turns into events of a single afternoon, and the witch has magical powers but is a bumbler.  Additionally, rather than eating the plumped-out children she traps, the witch has been turning them into gingerbread cookies and apparently not eating them at all….Hänsel and Gretel get to bring them magically back to life.

Thus, instead of watching two kids enter adulthood as they face parental desertion, survive in a forest, triumph over a cannibalistic witch, and rescue their family financially…we watch two kids who know their parents love them, who have angelic support when they get lost, whose cleverness saves them on their journey, and who get to return to their family.  At opera’s end, they are more experienced and a bit wiser, but they are still kids.

It’s an appealing idealism that audiences have loved for a long time. And they’ve loved the music too, despite its critics.  Most people familiar with Richard Wagner’s operas can hear Wagner’s influence on Humperdinck’s work.  As a young composer, Humperdinck met the aging Wagner in Italy, and followed him to Bayreuth in the early 1880s at Wagner’s invitation to assist him in producing Parsifal.  Humperdinck studied the score as he served as a copyist, and he coached the singers; he even joined a Wagnerian music club.  Wagner died in 1883, just seven years before Humperdinck began work on what became his most successful opera, so it should be no surprise that Hänsel und Gretel manifests Wagnerisms.

Wagner’s operas demand huge orchestras capable of wide varieties of color and texture, and dynamics ranging from the utmost tenderness to loud climaxes.  His music is full of chromaticisms, and is especially famous for its use of the “leitmotif,” or signature music to indicate a particular character or emotion.  Humperdinck pays tribute to Wagner by incorporating many of these musical elements in Hänsel und Gretel.

Humperdinck begins the Prelude with quiet horns playing the Evening Prayer leitmotif and then weaves in other themes from the opera, always returning to snippets of the prayer.  The Prelude starts simply, builds to a climax, and then gently subsides with a recapitulation of the prayer motif.

Another leitmotif is the father’s “Ra-la-la-la” music, which begins in a minor key as he enters on the sad scene of his wife with the broken milk jug, but changes to major as he displays the bounty from his day of successful broom-selling.  The theme returns at opera’s end as the parents come upon the happy scene of their children dancing with the revivified gingerbread kids.

However, Hänsel und Gretel is not a collection of Wagnerian clichés.  Humperdinck kept in mind that even though he was writing an opera for adult singers who could sing over a large orchestra, his story was not about Wagnerian mythical heroes; he was writing music that needed to describe the lives of children.  For this purpose, he quotes two authentic German folk songs:  “Suse, liebe Suse” in Act 1, and “Ein Männlein steht im Walde” in Act 2.  The rest of the children’s tunes, such as dance game the two kids play, are original with Humperdinck.  They sound like folk songs because of their simple rhythms and melodies.  Humperdinck also reflects simple childlike joys through play with the orchestra in moments like the Cuckoo echo game Hänsel begins in the forest scene.

Two magical moments shine musically and dramatically for me in Hänsel und Gretel, even though neither is action-packed.  One is, of course, the Evening Prayer, which happens right in the middle of Act 2.  We’ve heard it threaded through the opera, so when we actually hear the centerpiece, we’re prepared for this duet to be an important moment.  The children (two women) kneel, and their voices, so close in timbre and pitch, intertwine and climb over each other in delicious harmonies, with growing intensity created through chromatic developments, until they resolve to a peaceful musical unison.

A second miracle moment for me in this piece involves a dramatic nod to Wagner, whose operas generally conclude with the redemption of a major character, such as the Flying Dutchman, who is freed by Senta’s sacrifice.  After Gretel heroically pushes the witch (played by a character tenor in our production) into the oven, the two children rejoice and dance again, until they realize they are surrounded by gingerbread children singing “O rühre mich an, dass ich erwachen kann!” (“Please touch me so I can awaken!”).  It is beautiful to see Gretel and Hänsel’s triumph restore not only their own lives but those of so many other once-victimized children.  They all join together in a celebration of life that dances and then reflects, in the music of the Evening Prayer.

A young Richard Strauss was the conductor of the first performance of Hänsel und Gretel, in Weimar, 1893.  He wrote to Humperdinck his response to the score:  “Truly, this is a masterpiece….It is a long time since I have been so impressed with any work.  What heart-warming humour, what charm and simplicity of melodic line, what art and subtlety in your handling of the orchestra, what a triumph of form overall.”

Come experience this triumph of retelling, of idealism, of beauty and of childhood in Utah Opera’s performances of Hänsel und Gretel.