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Theatre / Hansel and Gretel (1893)

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"When past bearing is our grief,
Then 'tis Heaven will send relief!"
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Hansel and Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel in the original German) is a three-act opera composed by Engelbert Humperdinck from a libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette. It is based on the Fairy Tale of the same name.

The titular characters are the son and daughter of an impoverished couple, Peter and Gertrud. After one too many shenanigans results in the loss of the milk they were supposed to have for supper, Gertrud sends Hansel and Gretel off to forage for food. A dismayed Peter informs her that the Gingerbread Witch steals children and turns them into gingerbread in her oven, and the parents set off to find their children.

Hansel and Gretel wander around the woods but are protected through the night by the Sandman and the Dewman, a pair of benevolent nature spirits. The next day, they happen upon the cottage of the Gingerbread Witch and wind up nibbling on it. The Witch catches the two, fattens Hansel up, and turns Gretel into her servant. However, the pair are able to throw her into her own oven and free the children she had previously captured. They are reunited with their parents, who remind them that God's grace delivers in times of need.

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The opera first premiered in Weimar, Germany in 1893 and is frequently performed around the winter holiday season to this day.


Tropes:

  • Adaptational Job Change: The father becomes a broom-maker rather than a woodcutter, allowing his occupation to be symbolically linked to the Wicked Witch's activities.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The premise of Hansel and Gretel going is expanded upon, and the second act of their adventures in the woods prior to finding the witch's cabin is entirely original.
  • Adaptational Heroism: In this opera, Hansel and Gretel's Evil Stepmother is changed to their more sympathetic birth mother. She's still very hard on her children, but only because she's exhausted from their impoverished lifestyle. She does genuinely love her kids, is frightened when she realizes they could be in danger, and acompanies her husband to go searching for them.
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  • Alto Villainess: The Witch is often played by a contralto or mezzo-soprano, but she has just as often been played by a male singer in drag.
  • Bowdlerize: Instead of knowingly sending them out into danger, their mother just sends them out to pick berries in exasperation after they accidentally spill a jug of milk that was the only food item left in the house; then they stay too long playing in the forest and get lost when it gets dark. The opera also has the witch turn children into gingerbread instead of straight-up eating their flesh, has her turned into gingerbread herself instead of just burning to death, and has all her previous child victims come back to life when she dies.
  • Dream Ballet: After the Sandman puts Hansel and Gretel to sleep, a group of guardian angels guide them in their dreams via ballet.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: The witch turns into a giant gingerbread and is devoured by her resurrected victims.
  • Innocent Soprano:
    • Although Children Are Innocent is played straight with both of the leads, the soprano Gretel is much more virtuous and pious than her mezzo brother Hansel. Hansel constantly drags her into mischief and she follows only reluctantly.
    • The Sand Fairy and the Dew Fairy, pure and all-loving spirits of nature, are sung by coloratura sopranos.
  • Gratuitous Latin: The witch chants, "Hocus pocus, bonus jocus, malus locus, hocus pocus" as part of her spell. Though "hocus pocus" is meaningless, the rest actually translates as "good joke, bad place."
  • Guardian Angel: Gretel's "Evening Benediction" sings of fourteen guardian angels at bedtime:
    When at night I go to sleep,
    Fourteen angels watch do keep:
    Two my head are guarding,
    Two my feet are guiding,
    Two are on my right hand,
    Two are on my left hand,
    Two who warmly cover,
    Two who o'er me hover,
    Two to whom 'tis given
    To guide my steps to Heaven.
  • It's Probably Nothing: Twice while the children are busily taking pieces off the Gingerbread House and eating them, a voice from inside demands to know who's been nibbling at her house. The children think for a moment, and they declare it was the wind, the heavenly child.
  • Just Desserts: The witch owns a magical oven which bakes children into gingerbread. Of course, the witch ends up getting pushed into it, and not only does this restore all the gingerbread children to life, an impressive piece of witch-shaped gingerbread is brought out at the finale.
  • Leitmotif upon Death: Happy example. The Wicked Witch's demise is immediately celebrated with a jubilant waltz arrangement of her motifs, and the gingerbread she was turned into arrives in the final scene with an utterly triumphant version of the broomstick motif.
  • Lighter and Softer: In comparison to the original tale.
    • The siblings' horrible stepmother is now a sympathetic biological mother who's just tired of living in poverty, and while she still gives her children an earful like any strict parent, she does genuinely care for them.
    • The Witch doesn't bake children alive anymore, she just magically turns them into gingerbread. She herself also turns into gingerbread instead of being burned alive, and all of her victims come back to life after she is defeated.
  • Magic Wand: The Wicked Witch paralyzes the titular children with the powers of her wand and a rhyming incantation, a variation of which she later uses to remobilize Gretel. Gretel manages to steal the wand for the moment and free Hansel with the latter spell, which is used once again after they kill the witch to fully reanimate the gingerbread children.
  • Name and Name: The show is titled Hansel and Gretel after its two protagonists, just like the fairy tale source material.
  • Our Ogres Are Different: English versions will sometimes translate the witch villainess "Knusperhexe" as "gobbling ogress", resulting in a very witchy-acting ogre.
  • Parents as People: Mother. When she finds the children horsing around and the milk she was relying on is lost, she starts screaming at them in frustration, says some terrible things, and drives them out into the forest. However, her desperation, fear, and exasperation are understood by the viewer and she remains a sympathetic character. Her horror is palpable when she realizes they are now in danger, and the reunion at the end is a happy one usually void of any reference to her first scene.
  • The Sandman: The Sandman appears to Hansel and Gretel in the forest, signaling that it is time for the children to sing their evening prayer and go to sleep (though a Dream Ballet ensues). The Sandman's morning counterpart, the Dewman, appears to wake them up again with a very similar song as the curtain goes up on the third act.
  • Villain Song: "Witch's Aria", sung by the Witch. Depending on the production, she either sings it as she flies off on her broom, or while she's preparing Hansel for dinner.

Alternative Title(s): Hansel And Gretel

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