Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel
A mystical forest. A tempting gingerbread house. Two imaginative siblings embark on a precarious adventure to find something to eat when their fortunes turn for the worst. This enduring fairytale of lost children, candy sweets and an evil witch comes to life in an enchanting holiday production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel – a nineteenth-century opera admired for its fun and folk-music-inspired themes, including the famous, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” Sung in English with English supertitles.
Hansel and Gretel is one of the first operas that I can remember watching. My dad had a performance on VHS (I would guess it was from the Met, but a five year old doesn’t note these things) and we would often watch it as a family. But I’m pretty sure I never saw the show live as a kid, so when Dad suggested that the entire family see it together, I was excited.
Now, I enjoyed the show a lot. Let me say that right now. It’s silly, it’s ridiculous, it’s a fantastic fairy tale. BUT. My goodness. There’s a lot of little things that made me go “Whaaaa?” as I watched.
First of all, there is no witch in the first act. Instead, we spend the majority of it watching Hansel and Gretel goof off at home. Gretel likes to daydream, and Hansel is lazy, so they ignore their chores and dance and cavort around their tiny hut. When their mom gets home, she’s understandably upset. She kicks the kids out to go pick strawberries. You’d think that this would be the point where the witch shows up, but no. We’ve got to go through a drunken father routine (the song is pretty catchy) until we finally follow the kids into the forest, but even there the story takes a bizarre detour as a choir of angels flies in to protect the children as the Sandman puts them to sleep. And curtain. Where’s my gingerbread house?
Act Two commences not with sneaky witchery, but with a song and dance by the Dew Fairy, whom I’m sure is a very charming lady but not who I want to see at this point. The kids wake up and FINALLY we get to the gingerbread house. I’m ready for a wicked old hag, with a long pointed nose and warts galore. Green skin would not be amiss. Instead, I get an Elizabethan drag queen. I give points to Opera San Jose for creating a memorable and scary witch, but GOODNESS THINK OF THE CHILDREN, especially as the witch has a penchant for removing another layer of clothing every few minutes. She plumps Hansel up in his candy cane prison, and tries to pop Gretel into the oven, but the girl tricks her and the witch is transformed into a giant piece of gingerbread. This releases all the children previously transformed into gingerbread garden statuary, which leads me to wonder how on earth the witch amassed so many kids in the first place. Either she isn’t eating them, in which case Hansel’s plumpness shouldn’t have been such a concern, or she has so much child traffic coming through that she has at least a dozen children in her meal queue. Shouldn’t some parents be intervening?
At first it seemed like the Sandman (Sandwoman?) was working for the witch, but then I think it turned out that she was a slave of the witch, but I’m not really sure because she doesn’t talk, unless you are fluent in Flapping Cape sign language.
But as I said, I loved this opera when I was a wee one and I no doubt will still adore it when I'm old and gray. It's a classic fairy tale with catchy songs - and, as an added bonus, it's usually performed in English instead of the original German so it's a great "starter opera" for people who haven't yet the stamina for Puccini or Mozart.