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 — almost too good for the kids!
Its composer, Engelbert Humperdinck, was a disciple of Wagner, who learned the Wagnerian lessons well: masterful counterpoint, evocative mood-conjuring, rich orchestration. Appropriately, for a fairy tale, there are echoes of folk song, and touches of humor.
(A few examples: There's also 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. Also, 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.")
If you look at the photos from the Met production, however, you won't see those lush images. But you will see images of family life, of hungry children, and even of violence — a reminder that fairy tales can connect us with primal urges and stories. (There have been storybook productions of Hansel, but this is not one of them.)
The original source of Hansel and Gretel is the fairy-tale collection of the Brothers Grimm, which also popularized stories like Rumpelstitskin, Rapunzel, and Snow White. As it so happens, 2012 is the 200th anniversary of its publication — so the Met's performances are not only a musical event, but a tip of the hat to a book that is now common cultural property.