Hansel & Gretel Preview – Déjà vu all over again

Empire State Building; photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It was a momentous year. Herbert Hoover was president – the “planet” Pluto was discovered – the Great Depression was settling in – the Empire State Building was rising up in New York – the Philadelphia Athletics were in the World Series.  And the Opera Nut sang in his first opera.

The Opera Nut (upper R) age 10 with siblings, cousins, mother (extreme R), aunt, and grandmother; family photo

Yes, as a member of Miss Eccles 4th grade class in Garden City, Long Island I was one of the children in a production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s  Hansel and Gretel.  I remember absolutely nothing about the performance, but I do remember many of the melodies and many of the (English) words to the songs.  In fact, at the Met HD Encore at CinéArts at Palo Alto Square last night, December 22, 2011, I had to consciously refrain from treating it as a sing-along.  And whereas Maestro Vladimir Jurowski had all the music correct, I kept wanting to correct the translation of David Pountney since the words were different from the ones I learned long ago.

School children as Angels in Hansel and Gretel; Photograph courtesy of P.S. 99 (Paulette Foglio, Principal and Dan Morgan, Document Custodian)

I was not the only ex-child performer in the Palo Alto audience.  Sara had her turn at an even younger age when she was in Miss Sourter’s 3rd grade class in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  And she had a more important role, being one of the 14 angels in the famous dream sequence.  We may not remember what we had for breakfast, but, by golly,  we Elders remember clearly what happened more than half a century ago.  Sara was one of the first pair of angels: “Two stand here above me.”  Her robe was a white bed sheet, and her halo was an embroidery hoop.  Mine was a colorful outfit which looked vaguely Dutch – handmade by my mother.

I was a voracious reader as a child, so I was familiar with most of the Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales, Hansel and Gretel in particular.  However, I wanted to be sure of my facts, so I looked up Hansel and Gretel on the web and reread it, in English.  The five main characters are all the same: Two children Hansel and Gretel, their parents Peter and Gertrud, and the wicked witch.  And the basic story is the same.

Here is a brief synopsis that could apply equally well to the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm and to libretto of the opera by Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette:

Peter is a poor woodcutter who lives with his family in a hut in a clearing of a great forest.  The family is very poor and seldom have enough to eat.  The two children get lost in the forest and spend the night there.  In the morning they see a magic house entirely made of sweets, and they start to eat pieces of it.  A witch comes out of the house and encourages the children until they are firmly in her power.  Then she imprisons Hansel and turns Gretel into her slave.  Her plan is to fatten Hansel up and then cook and eat them both (the implication being that Gretel is already plump).  She gets impatient and plans to eat Gretel first.  The witch asks Gretel to put her head in the oven and see if the bread is done.  Gretel feigns ignorance and says she doesn’t understand, “Please show me.”  The witch falls for this ploy and their roles are completely reversed – Gretel pushes the witch in the oven and slams the door shut.  The wicked witch is dead and everyone else Lives-Happily-Ever-After.

Arthur Rackam illustration to 1909 edition of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm; photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In both versions the children are good, the witch is bad, and the Father is ineffectual.  But the Mother is quite different.  According to the Grimms she is evil.  She figures that if she gets rid of the kids she’ll have more to eat so she intentionally leads them deep into the forest and abandons them.  (In the first published edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, she is referred to only as the Mother, but in later editions she is called the Step-Mother; apparently that behavior by a natural mother was considered a little over the top even back in 1812).

In contrast Humperdinck’s Gertrud is just thoughtless – in a moment of pique she sends the kids out to find strawberries not noticing that it is close to sunset and that the woods are dangerous at night.

Also, the Fairy Tale follows the usual pattern of keeping us terrified and apprehensive right up to the sudden climax, whereas the opera introduces benign characters such as the Sandman, the Dew Fairy, and the 14 Angels to reassure us as we go along that the world is not all Grim.

The discerning reader will note that there are only a few lines left in this review and that I haven’t said a word about the Met HD performance.  The fact is, that I had some free time last week and figured to get a head start on my review by writing part of it before seeing it.  My plan was to see the opera and then revise and add to the above as appropriate to what I had seen and heard.

Well, things didn’t work out that way.  Instead, I hope you have enjoyed the above essay for its own sake. To summarize my opinion of Hansel and Gretel, I like the Fairy Tale and I like both the Libretto and the Music of the Opera.  If you want to know what I thought of the Met HD performance, read the following review, written after I had seen it.

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