“Hansel and Gretel” is a fairy opera in three acts, the music being by Engelbert Humperdinck and the libretto by his sister, Frau Adelheid Wette. It is the nursery legend of ” The Babes in the Wood,” told in German fashion. The work was first produced in Munich, Dec. 30, 1893.
Peter, a broom-maker, Gertrude, his wife. Hänsel, Gretel, their children. The Witch, who eats children. Sandman, the sleep fairy. Dewman, the dawn fairy,. The enchanted children. The fourteen angels.
There are three scenes, the first of which is laid in the wretched little cottage of Peter, the broom-maker. He and his wife, Gertrude, have gone to town to sell their wares and have left Hänsel and his sister Gretel in possession of the house. For a while they are very good children, the boy working at a broom and the girl knitting stockings. But soon they realize that they are hungry. Except for the jug of milk with which the mother is to make a porridge when she comes home, the house is in the sad condition of Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. They do not quite dare to drink the milk and they do not care to work, so they begin to dance. This is such great fun that they keep it up until they grow dizzy and fall laughing upon the floor. But the mother comes in just then and, angry at finding them idle, boxes the boy’s ears and accidentally knocks over the milk, not only spilling it but breaking the pitcher as well. This is such a catastrophe that the poor woman bursts into tears and curtly tells the children to go and hunt straw-berries in the wood and not to come home until the basket is full. They have been gone but a little while when the father comes back and it is apparent at once that he has had fine luck, for he is singing a song and the basket on his arm is full of good things to eat. He has indeed sold all his brooms and there will be something beside dry bread for a while. When his wife tells him that the children have been sent away to the forest of Ilsenstein, he is horrified, for he knows that it is there that the witches ride and that they live on children. In terror, they both rush out to find Hänsel and Gretel.
In the second act, we find the two children in the forest. It is sunset and the basket is brimful of fruit. The boy crowns his sister with a rose-wreath, while she gives him a strawberry as a reward. It tastes good and he eats another. Then she tries one, and behold ! in a few moments the basket is empty. They would even brave the wrath at home but it is dark and they cannot find the way and the forest is full of terrifying sounds and peering faces. Thoroughly frightened, they lie down in each other’s arms, trying to say their evening prayers. They find comfort in the familiar words,
When at night I go to sleep Fourteen angels watch do keep: Two my head protecting, Two my feet directing, Two upon my left in sight, Two there are who warmly cover, Two above me always hover, Two to whom the word is given, To guide my steps to heaven.
Then the Sandman comes in a mist, sprinkling sand in their eyes, and they sink to sleep. The mist becomes a stair-case, and the angels descend and stand guard about the children.
In the third act, they are awakened by the little Dew-man, and, wandering into the woods, they find the Witch’s house with its fence of gingerbread figures about it. They are hungry, so invited by a gentle voice within, they nibble at the cakes that are on the house and, of course, the Witch comes out and seizes them. She puts Hänsel in a cage to fatten on almonds and raisins and is about to thrust the plump Gretel into the oven, when the clever brother, who has freed himself, picks up the enchantment wand and slip-ping up behind the Witch, pushes her head first into the, oven.
A great many fine things happen in the finale. The oven cracks open, revealing the Witch, turned to gingerbread The gingerbread children become flesh and blood again simply by the touching of the fingers of Hänsel and Gretel and Peter and Gertrude find their children safe and sound.
This charming setting of a simple nursery tale was originally intended to be only an unpretentious work for home presentation. The composer’s sister wished a little singspiel for the use of her children and thus began the writing of the text. Humperdinck was asked to supply the music. He composed the work, using as his thematic material a number of the well-known German folk-songs. As he worked, his enthusiasm and interest grew and soon the determination was reached to make the work an opera. The influence of Wagner was strong on the composer and, while the musical setting he has supplied is perhaps disproportionately elaborate and complex for so simple a story as is this nursery tale, the beauty of the music itself and the irresistible appeal of the book have made the opera a recognized masterpiece throughout the world.
Among the numbers which linger in one’s memory are the orchestral number, ” The Witch’s Ride; ” the beautiful prayer of the children in the forest scene; the Sandman’s lullaby; the music accompanying the appearance of the angels; the waltz of Hänsel and Gretel before the house of the Witch and the final “Hymn of Thanksgiving,”
When past hearing is our grief, God, the Lord, will send relief.