Slideshow: Met Opera's "Hansel & Gretel"
Hansel and Gretel that is, the operatic version of the story, which the Metropolitan Opera performs this Saturday can be seen as a musical equivalent of a gorgeous children's book. With each page turn, there's a sumptuous new illustration, with shimmering colors and detail.
Its composer, Engelbert Humperdinck, was a disciple of Wagner, who learned the Wagnerian lessons well: masterful counterpoint, rich orchestration, evocative mood-conjuring. For example, at the very beginning of the opera, the horns play the familiar melody of the Children's Prayer. It instantly evokes a fairy-tale setting of "deep in the forest." (Or, if you will, "into the woods.")
Appropriately, for a fairy tale, there are echoes of folk song, and touches of humor. One example of that: there's a section where the witch rides her broomstick. Some have wondered if Humperdinck was gently poking fun at the Ride of the Valkyries, from Wagner's Ring cycle, in which warrior maidens fly through the air on their horses.
Now if you look at the photos from the Met production, however, you won't see glossy illustrator images. There have been storybook productions of Hansel, but this is not one of them. What you will see are images of family life, of hungry children and even of violence a reminder that fairy tales can connect us with primal urges and stories.
It's certainly true that Hansel and Gretel has often been treated as a "children's opera." It's often performed at Christmastime though there's no mention of Christmas in the opera itself, which seems to take place in the summertime. But in recent years, it seems to be shedding that label, as more and more people come to appreciate its musical craft and surprising theatrical power. Maybe it's like a children's book that's too good for the kids!