Pittsburgh Opera heads into the woods with ‘Hansel and Gretel’

November 24, 2018 GMT

The unusual origins of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera “Hansel and Gretel” give it a unique piece in the operatic canon.

Written near the end of the 19th century, the opera began as family entertainment when the composer’s sister asked him to write some songs for her children to sing in a little show at home around Christmas. She provided the lyrics. Humperdinck realized the potential of the story and expanded it to an opera. The result was recognized as a masterpiece right from the start, and has enjoyed more than a century of popularity around the world.

Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” starting Nov. 3 at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center. The German opera will be sung in English.

Lush, sophisticated

Opera music director Antony Walker is excited to be working on “Hansel and Gretel” again.

″ ‘Hansel and Gretel’ can be enjoyed by children and adults, and has many adult jokes in it,” he says. “When it was expanded from a very small, chamber music level, Humperdinck added very lush, sophisticated and dramatic interludes which fantastically underscore the fairy tale aspects of the story. From these witty folk songs to sublime interludes, there is something there musically for everybody.”

Although Humperdinck was closely associated with opera composer Richard Wagner, one would hardly guess it from hearing “Hansel and Gretel.” Walker thinks that’s because the character of the children and the overall plot are far removed from Wagner’s dark Germanic Christian mysticism.

“It’s a very fun plot,” he says. “In the first two acts the two children take time being children together, playing and getting on each other’s nerves. The bigger themes are the family being hungry and poor, which is why the children go into the woods to gather berries to eat.”

Mystical hold

Walker makes the important point that for many centuries the woods had a mystical hold on German imagination. “It was a fantastically fraught place where anything could happen, good or evil. Magic (and monsters) happened in the woods. It is a complete contrast with the mundane world of the house.”

In the opera’s second act, as Pittsburgh Opera is presenting it, the siblings are ensnared in the forest by the Witch, who lives in a gingerbread house.

“She’s a fun character,” says Marianne Cornetti, the mezzo-soprano who has enjoyed a 30-year international career. “In the original Grimm tale it’s pretty gruesome. In the opera she’s a whimsical kind of character. It’s almost charming the way she tries to get the children into the oven. Of course, they’re much smarter than she and she gets tossed in the oven instead of them.”

Cornetti says her role is a dramatic mezzo part, mostly in the middle register with some high notes to pop out.

Stage director Crystal Manich emphasizes the lightness and the darkness that exists in the piece, and the magical elements. She’s also strategic in her use of the vast spaces of the Benedum Center stage.

“We start in the little house where the family lives, using a very small area of the stage,” she explains. “Then when Hansel and Gretel start getting lost in the woods we expand the visual picture to illustrate these little people in the great outdoors.”