HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel
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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hansel und Gretel
Ever since its premi?â?¿re on 23rd December 1893 inWeimar, when it was conducted by Richard Strauss,Engelbert Humperdinck's three-act opera Hansel undGretel has become firmly established, proving to be themost significant stage work in the German operatictradition between Wagner's Parsifal and Strauss'sSalome in international repertory.
Originally composed for a children's Christmascelebration for use by his own fireside, the libretto ofthe opera was written by the composer's sister AdelheidWette after a tale in the publication Kinder- undHausmarchen of 1812-14 by the brothers Grimm. Thestory, set in the Harz Mountains near the IlsensteinPeak, was modified and adapted by Wette with thecharacters of the two parents changed from a selfishstepmother and weak but loving father who abandon thechildren in the forest to ease their own deprivations, to agood-natured man who enjoys his tipple rather toomuch and a pessimistic woman who, in today's world,would be called a depressive. What the composermanages to great effect is in keeping his music basicallysimple. For example, the magical and life-enhancingOverture (really a potpourri of themes but superblyconstructed), the fresh and playful Dance Duet in thefirst act, the enchanting Evening Prayer and ensuingDream Pantomime in the second, the brief Prelude tothe third, the joy after the two children have pushed theWitch into her own oven, and the fourth scene, when allthe gingerbread children become human again,concluding with the happy reunion of children andparents.
Born in Siegburg in 1854, Humperdinck studiedfirst in Cologne with the pianist, conductor andcomposer Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885) and later inMunich. He met Wagner in Italy in 1879 and assisted inthe preparation of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1880-81, evencomposing several bars for the opera which were laterdiscarded. Later he was to compose a bridge sequenceto join the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan undIsolde for use in the concert hall. He taught musicaltheory at the Conservatory in Barcelona in 1885-86before being appointed Professor of Harmony at theHochschule in Frankfurt-am-Main between 1890 and1896. He also served concurrently as music critic for theFrankfurter Zeitung. This was followed by anappointment in 1900 as Director of the BerlinAkademie.
As a composer Humperdinck wrote a further sixoperas which, with the exception of Die Konigskinder,first given at the Metropolitan Opera House in NewYork in 1910, have now become totally forgotten. Healso wrote incidental music for a number of Germanproductions of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice(1905), A Winter's Tale and The Tempest (both 1906)and As You Like It (1907) and also contributed a set ofKinderlieder.
Humperdinck's musical language is firmly weddedto the style of Wagner, although in no way does heattempt to expand and develop the older composer'sassociation with characters and musical motifs. What hedoes achieve in a more obvious manner is an opera ofunique and long-lasting charm, employing traditionalfolk-tunes and some newly invented ones, so it is littlewonder that children and their parents have found thework to be of continuing attraction.
The performance history of Hansel und Gretel isinteresting in that it was the first-ever complete opera tobe broadcast from the stage in Britain on 6th January1923, from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Eight years later it became the first work to betransmitted from the Metropolitan Opera House in NewYork and was the first televised stage work to be givenin a studio production on WRGB-TV, GeneralElectric's pioneering station in Schenectady, NewYork.
Although extended highlights from the opera weremade by the German Polydor company in 1929, the firstcomplete recordings of the whole opera came from a1943 German radio broadcast conducted by ArturRother. The complete commercially-made studiorecording, sung in English, was made by ColumbiaRecords Inc over two days in June 1947 in theMetropolitan Opera House, the conductor being MaxRudolf. This was followed by the 1953 London-madeversion, conducted by Karajan who, strange to relate,had never conducted the work previously. In no waycould one have guessed this from his faultless handlingof the score. From the opening bars to the conclusion,he and the Philharmonia Orchestra constantly ravish theear with finely balanced orchestral playing. This iscertainly Karajan at his finest. The soloists work as areal team and the miracles of balance and distancingachieved by the engineer Douglas Larter are such thatthere is a real sense of the theatre in the recording.
Overseeing everything is the impresario and producerWalter Legge, whose careful preparation prior to therecording and masterly guiding hand are evidentthroughout the whole project. Given the quality ofperformance and recording it is little wonder this set hasachieved a classic status over the past fifty years, and itsreissue, marking the 150th anniversary of thecomposer's birth, is timely.
Walter Legge chose the German soprano ElisabethGr?â??mmer (1911-1986) for the role of Hansel and inevery way she proves ideal. Originally trained as anactress it was not until 1940 that she made her debut asa singer at Aachen as the First Flowermaiden inParsifal. She moved to Duisberg in 1942 and four yearslater joined the Stadtische (later Deutsche) Oper, Berlinwhere she remained until 1972. During the 1950s shesang in Dresden, at Bayreuth, where her r?â??les includedElsa, Freia and Gutrune, Glyndebourne and at theEdinburgh Festival with the Hamburg Staatsoper, theRoyal Opera House, Covent Garden as Eva in 1951under Beecham. She also appeared regularly at theSalzburg Festival and in Vienna but her American debutwas delayed until 1967, when she appeared both at theMetropolitan and City Operas in New York. She was aconsummate Mozartian as can be discened from herinterpretations of the r?â??les of Ilia, Donna Anna and theCountess, which well illustrate her splendid vocalresources and excellent musicianship. Her repertoirealso included Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, theMarschallin, the Countess in Capriccio and Agathe inDer Freisch?â??tz. She recorded extensively for EMI.
The r?â??le of Gretel was undertaken by the Germansoprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (b. 1915), the wife ofWalter Legge, whom she married in 1953. She studiedat the Berlin Hochschule f?â??r Musik and later with thesoprano Maris Ivogun, making her debut as one of theFlowermaidens in Parsifal with the Stadtische Oper,Berlin in 1938. Originally a lyrical soprano sheundertook r?â??les such as Adele in Die Fledermaus,Musetta in La Boh?â?¿me and Zerbinetta in Ariadne aufNaxos when she joined the Vienna State Opera underKarl Bohm in 1943. Her first overseas appearance waswith this company on their visit to London in 1947when she sang Donna Elvira and Marzelline in Fidelio.
She then joined the fledgling Covent Garden Company,where for five seasons she sang a variety of r?â??les,mostly in English. Alongside these appearances,Schwarzkopf sang at the Salzburg Festival (1946-1964),La Scala, Milan (1948-1963), San Francisco (1955-1964) and, finally, the Metropolitan in New York in1964. She was greatly admired in the r?â??les of theMarschallin, Fiordiligi, the Countess in Le nozze diFigaro and Donna Elvira. She also had a distinguishedparallel career as a Lieder singer in the concert hall.
The German baritone Josef Metternich (b. 1916)studied in his native Cologne and later Berlin and thensang as a chorus member in both Cologne and Bonn.
His solo debut in 1941 was in Lohengrin in Berlin. Inthe postwar years his reputation grew with appearancesthroughout Germany in both the German and Italianrepertory. His British debut was in the title r?â??le of Derfliegende Hollander in 1951