Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into the Woods with Humperdinck

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On January 3, 2015, the Metropolitan Opera will bring Hänsel und Gretel to radio listeners estimated at 11 million strong. The Saturday matinees are currently broadcast on more than 300 stations in the United States, and in forty countries, from Peru to Japan, on six continents.

Not surprisingly given its instantaneous popularity, Hänsel und Gretel was the very first opera broadcast nation-wide by the Metropolitan. It aired on Christmas Day 1931, and was carried by more than 100 stations, and by short wave around the world. The announcer of the occasion, and for the next forty years, was Milton Cross. American composer Deems Taylor narrated the action over the score, to the distress of many who preferred their music without simultaneous commentary. Later, in 1947, Hänsel und Gretel, in English, was the first complete opera to be recorded from the Met stage.

Hänsel und Gretel was premiered at the Met in 1905 with its composer, Engelbert Humperdinck, in attendance. He had come to New York to oversee the first U.S. production of what would almost immediately become a beloved item of the repertoire. (Humperdinck would return in 1910 for the successful world premiere of his now rarely performed Königskinder.) First-night reviewers agreed that it “did not seem as if there could be anybody in the house to whom [Hänsel und Gretel] did not appeal as something beautiful, something delightful and enjoyable” (Times). Contemporary critics, germanophile in the main, were predisposed to Hänsel’s Wagnerian sonorities. They were undoubtedly reminded of the “Ride of the Valkyries” by the “Witch’s Ride” and of Siegfried’s Forest Bird scene by the children’s imitation of the song of the birds. They knew, of course, that Humperdinck had been Wagner’s assistant during the preparation of Parsifal and had served as music tutor to Wagner’s son, Siegfried.

Paradoxically, it was the broad attraction of Humperdinck’s opera that opened the door to its devaluation. Decades ago, the piece was relegated to holiday fare—a light, easily digestible Christmas presentation intended primarily for young audiences, and at the Met, now offered at reduced prices in English translation. It shares this niche (although at normal ticket pricing and sometimes in the original German) with Johann Strauss’s operetta, Die Fledermaus, regularly called upon to ring in the new year. Hänsel’s déclassement would have dismayed those who, at its birth in 1893, hailed this Marschenoper (Fairy-tale opera) as a masterpiece. The most advanced composers in Europe took it on. Richard Strauss, in the pit at its premiere, and Gustav Mahler, who conducted it only months later, had had a marked influence on Humperdinck’s sophisticated amalgam of traditional folk songs and avant-garde practice.

Since the 1940s, the opera’s title roles have often been filled from the second-rank Met roster. But from time to time, stars too have rendered Humperdinck’s melodies and impersonated his children: mezzos Risë Stevens, Tatiana Troyanos, Frederica von Stade in the trouser role of Hänsel, and sopranos Teresa Stratas, Judith Blegen, Dawn Upshaw as Gretel. On records, the rich score has been led by such titanic conductors as Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti.

The opera opens with Hänsel and Gretel at play at home. They sing the children's song, "Suse, liebe Suse (Suzy, dear  Suzy)," delivered with touching simplicity by Anneliese Rothenberger and Irmgard Seefried in a 1964 recording, with André Cluytens conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Here is the translation of the text provided in a Met libretto published during the regime of general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, 1908-1935.

GRETEL: Susy, little Susy, pray what is the news?
The cheese are running barefoot, because
they've no shoes !
The cobbler has leather, and plenty to spare,
why can't he make the poor goose a new pair?

HANSEL: Then they'll have to go barefoot !
Eia-popeia, pray what's to be done ?
Who'll give me milk and sugar, for bread I have none ?
I'll go back to bed and I'll lie there all day; where there's nought to eat, then there's
nothing to pay !

GRETEL: Then we'll have to go hungry !

HANSEL: If mother would only come home again !
Yes, I am so hungry, I don't know what to do !
For weaks I've eaten nought but bread. It's very hard, it is indeed !

GRETEL: Hush, Hansel, don't forget what father said, when mother, too, wished she were dead:
" When past bearing is our grief, Then 'tis Heaven will send relief ! "

HANSEL: Yes, yes, that sounds all very fine, but you know off maxims we cannot dine!
O Gret, it would be such a treat if we had something nice to eat!
Eggs and butter and suet paste, I've almost forgotten how they taste.
(Nearly crying.)
O Gretel, I wish

GRETEL: Hush, don't give way to grumps ; have patience awhile, no doleful dumps!
This woful face, whew ! what a sight ! Looks like a horrid old crosspatch fright !
Crosspatch, away ! Leave me, I pray ! Just let me reach you, quickly I'll teach you how to make trouble,
soon mount to double! Crosspatch, crosspatch, what is the use, growling and grumbling, full of abuse?
Off with you, out with you, shame on you, goose!

HANSEL: Crosspatch, away! Hard lines, I say.

HANSEL: When I am hungry, surely I can say so, cannot allay so, can't chase away so!

GRETEL: If I am hungry, I'll never say so, will not give way so, chase it away so !

GRETEL: That's right. Now, if you leave off complaining, I'll tell you a most delightful secret!

The most ravishing moment of the score comes at the end of Act II. The Sandman puts the children to sleep, but not before they pray that fourteen angels watch over them through the night. In this 1954 recording, Karajan lingers affectionately over the music, giving the Sandman, Anny Felbermayer, the Gretel, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and the Hänsel, Elisabeth Grümmer, the time to do full justice to their ecstatic lines.

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