If Rienzi is the best opera Meyerbeer wrote, is Hansel und Gretel the best opera Wagner wrote?
I recently showed Hansel and Gretel (the Met production from 1982) to my eighth grade history class and for the most part they really enjoyed it. Looking back on it, I feel that over the years I have failed to recognize the sheer grandeur of this little work by Englebert Humperdinck. The orchestration, for instance, is amazing considering how nothing by Humperdinck would later repeat it in immortality. The usage of leitmotifs and just the over all composition is masterful with Gretel embarking on patches of Italianate coloratura in the opening of act 3 being just one example.
Although passed off as a children’s opera, whatever that means when cannibal witches and killing people with ovens is concerned, it really isn’t a work for children. Even Richard Strauss, who conducted the premier on 23 December, 1893 would repeatedly claim that the orchestration is far too complex and heavy, and its chromaticism (The Witches Ride for instance) has traces of the Ring Cycle in it. Hardly what one expects from the Gingerbread Opera!
The story itself is retooled, gone is the wicked stepmother who forces the father to banish the kidos. Instead, we have a story of child resilience against mortal danger and even some divine intervention (the angels of the unfortunately termed Pantomime). In its one hundred minutes, this score accomplishes more of a redemption arc than any Wagner opera does in at least close to twice the time. Perhaps the man who wrote an interlude for Parsifal also wrote the shortest Wagner opera, and one so naive that its narrative, and message, are understandable to children, yet it is still very much an adult work?
What is more, the opera is distinctively, if frighteningly, German, which admittedly befits the story (it is a German fairy tale after all), but it feels impossible for it to have been a product of any other culture. The prayer recited by the title characters in the second act is the same which my own German mother taught me as a three year old, to the same melody because it, like so many in the opera, are actually traditional German melodies, not of the original invention of the composer. However, at the same time, does not the treatment fall into the same level of decadence as Wagner, and perhaps all of German culture?
And so this holiday season I ponder not on the nature of Christmas, but rather on this intriguing work which has become a world favorite for nearly 130 years when it has nothing actually to do with the Christian holyday.
Phil of the Opera World