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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Beethoven, Wagner, and...Humperdinck?

Hänsel und Gretel go to Bayreuth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Arnold George Dorsey, AKA
Engelbert Humperdinck.

by P
Mention the name "Engelbert Humperdinck" and most people in the 20th century will think of the British-born singer who followed in the wake of Elvis Presley with hits like "The Last Waltz." But opera aficionados know that the former Arnold George Dorsey borrowed his stage name from the German composer of the opera Hänsel und Gretel, currently playing at the Metropolitan Opera in an English translation.

The older Humperdinck is chiefly remembered for his work in the genre of märchenoper or fairy-tale opera. Hänsel (which premiered in 1890) tells of two lost children and their encounter with a nasty old Witch in the forest. Königskinder (Royal Children) is less well known but worthy of attention. It received a hearing last year from dell'Arte Opera Ensemble.

Before he found success with his musical trail of bread-crumbs, Humperdinck was associated with Richard Wagner. He worked as an assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the theater designed by Wagner and built in that German city as a shrine to himself. But what is not generally known is that Humperdinck was one of only three composers to have his music heard at Bayreuth.



Engelbert Humperdinck, AKA
Engelbert Humperdinck.
Ever since its opening in 1876, Bayreuth has had strict policies about repertory. The only music played is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (which opens the Festival every year) and of course, the ten "mature" Wagner operas including the Ring. That policy has never changed. But in 1883, Humperdinck was assisting Wagner in the preparation of Parsifal, which was due to premiere at the theater that year.

Wagner was working on the tricky Act I "Transformation Scene", where a rolling cyclorama (a theatrical innovation in 1883) portrays the slow transformation of a gloomy forest into the Temple of the Holy Grail, home of the knights that are central to this opera. Wagner could not get the scenery to roll fast enough, to fit the four-and-a-half minutes of music that he allotted for the scene change.

Humperdinck, the story goes, was asked by the Meister himself to write an "extension": three to five minutes of music, extending the tolling-bell theme of the Verwandlungsmusik, massaging Wagner's thematic material to make the scenery synch properly to the moving image. The music was reportedly composed, added to the score, and used in rehearsals by conductor Hermann Levi. Before the premiere, Wagner's technical team fixed the recalcitrant scenery, and Humperdinck's brief time of being heard at Bayreuth was over.

Yes, Hansel is an opera for children, with music originally written to accompany a puppet show. And for some reason, it's tradtional to put on this story of child neglect and attempted cannibalism during the holiday season in New York. But when you sit down to listen to this opera, think about its composer--and that his work was good enough for Richard Wagner.

Correction: A sharp-eyed reader pointed out that the technical term for a fairy-tale opera is "Märchenoper", not "Marschenoper." Use of the latter word would imply that the opera either takes place in a swamp, involved H + G marching, or the little tykes marching into a swamp and doing battle with the mysterious Man-Thing. Either way, it was a boggy mistake. Thanks for the heads-up!



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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.