Based on one of the best-loved stories by the Brothers Grimm, and with a libretto by his sister, Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera Hänsel und Gretel began life as a private entertainment for his own family before being presented to the wider world as a “Christmas gift” in 1893. An instant success – presented in over 50 German theatres within a year of its Weimar premiere – it soon became one of the mostperformed operas in the world and has remained enduringly popular with both children and adults ever since. And, like all the best treats, it’s not just for Christmas!
The secret of its lasting success lies, of course, not just in the delicious thrills and spills of the familiar story – with its recognizably realistic child heroes, its grotesquely comical, yet genuinely terrifying witch and its comfortingly happy-ever-after ending – but also in its magical musical mix of memorable folksong-inspired melodies and wonderfully rich and colourful orchestration. The latter brilliantly synthesizes the influences of both Richard Wagner, whom Humperdinck had assisted on the Bayreuth premiere of Parsifal, and Richard Strauss, who conducted Hänsel und Gretel’s Weimar premiere, declaring it “a masterpiece of the highest quality (…) all of it original, new and authentically German”. Mahler was another admirer.
In bringing the work back to the Wiener Staatsoper for its first new production since World War II – inventively directed by Adrian Noble, former Artistic Director of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company – it’s no surprise that, as one of today’s most admired interpreters of both Wagner and Strauss, German conductor Christian Thielemann should particularly relish the musical echoes of those composers’ works in Humperdinck’s score. In Opera magazine’s words, “He polished all these moments with refinement and subtlety, inspiring the Staatsopernorchester to play with energy, engagement and transparence.” Other reviews were equally ecstatic, praising both the orchestra’s “fabulously resplendent and silky playing” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and Thielemann’s “concern for an elegantly flowing musical line (…) and for a lightness and transparency that allow this noble music to sparkle in manifold ways” – in short, the whole performance was “musically exceptional (…) a miniature miracle in sound” (Wiener Zeitung).