Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Met puts on "Hansel and Gretel" (Humperdinck), broadcast to theaters


Today, the Metropolitan Opera presented a most original interpretation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1891 opera “Hansel und Gretel” (“Hansel and Gretel”), sung in English, conducted by the young Vladimir Jurowski, with Alice Coote and Christine Schaefer as the siblings. The performance was broadcast by satellite to large screen theaters around the nation, including Regal in Ballston in Arlington. The projection was with a standard 1.81:1 aspect ratio but is still overwhelming on a large, slightly curved screen.

The broadcast showed a lot of the backstage work, including the awesome makeup required for many of the characters, especially the witch (Philip Langridge) and sandman (Sasha Cooke), as well as the gnomes and props, which include utensils for an oversized (relative to the characters) kitchen for the late scenes. The colors of the sets are often muted, especially in the beginning where light beige predominates; then the weird oversized characters take on the appearance of the gnomes in a Guillermo del Toro movie (like "Pan’s Labyrinth").

The music by Humperdinck contains several familiar melodies (including the prayer, which also opens the prelude) and tends to be somewhat episodic. There are a number of orchestral passages (including an extended prelude, which is improvisatory rather than being in a sonata form). It is a good example of a limited volume of music by a relatively obscure composer becoming familiar in the repertoire and often quoted. (What piano student hasn’t played the prayer theme early in lessons?) The style is German and said to derive from Wagner, but it seems lighter and an appropriate comparison might be to some of later Strauss, as well as some of Mahler’s Wunderhorn music (the opening of Act III could almost fit into Mahler’s Fourth Symphony). There is a bit of chromaticism in the prayer music, related more to Schubert than Wagner, with a tendency to shifts to the subdominant. Like many composers, Humperdinck's style became refined with age, and eventually he used "Sprechstimme" (spoken singing) as would Arnold Schoenberg, although not in this opera.

The story (the Met’s summary is here (pdf)is based on a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. To a modern audience, especially young adults, it probably comes across as social and political satire (in the spirit of Jonathan Swift). In the first Act, the two siblings parents chide them about not working hard enough for the good of the “family” and that food should not be taken for granted. As their “road trip” progresses (in a plot structure common in some horror movies), ironies develop. The witch wants to make Hansel fat, and casting Hansel with a female (so that there is no voice change) certainly affects his appearance anyway. There is a scene in this production where the witch tries to “tube feed” him in the kitchen, with some wicked irony. Then, we know, the kids put the witch in the oven, and the gingerbread children will return to life. In the end, they all have a feast with the roasted corpse, cutting off limbs. It’s like the last scene in “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover,” and shows that cannibalism can indeed make a mockery of social injustices (just as in that movie).

Once, when I substitute taught an honors English class in tenth grade, the teacher had left an assignment for each kid to write a fairy tale. They had to follow the “once upon a time” format. One boy’s started “once upon a time there lived a banana” and went on to deliver a satire of the use of appearances for social and political power, with Pixar-like characters.

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