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Photos of the performance in our photo gallery

THE SECOND BIRTH AT CHRISTMAS

The charming fairytale opera “Hänsel and Gretel” was written at the very end of the 19th century by the German composer Engelbert Humperdinck – as a Christmas present to his nephews.

Some time later, the composer revised it and presented it to his bride on the day of their wedding. The opera matured and was enriched with new symphonic episodes.

And before long, the great European premiere was conducted by his renowned colleagues Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

This main and sole masterpiece by Humperdinck, Wagner’s pupil, was warmly welcomed and quickly accepted at all European theaters, including Russian ones.

The opera “Hänsel and Gretel” was applauded not only at Empire theaters, but also at private opera houses. Savva Mamontov, a Russian sponsor, translated the opera into Russian himself, while the decorations were designed by Mikhail Vrubel who fell in love with his future wife, the singer Nadezhda Zabela at the rehearsals of “Hänsel and Gretel”.

The opera took all Europe by storm, giving pleasure to people of all ages.

However, in Russia, at the beginning of the First World War, in 1914, the opera was banned as a work by an enemy composer.

Under the Bolshevik regime, the opera was not favoured either – because of its involving the Christian theme and a lot of angels in the interludes.

In modern times, it has not been realized yet that “Hänsel and Gretel” is the best Christmas present for both children and adults. And now, finally, “Russkaya Opera” presents the world’s favourite fairytale opera, so unfairly forgotten in Russia, in the new translation.

The rebirth of the opera in Russia took place on Christmas Eve, 24th December, on the stage of “The Palace on the Yauza”.

 

Hänsel and Gretel

A fairytale opera in three scenes with one intermission.

Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921)

Libretto by Adelheid Wette based on the fairy tale of the same title by the Brothers Grimm.

A loose translation into Russian by Ekaterina Pospelova in cooperation with Olga Prokhorova.

The opera plot

Scene 1

Hänsel and Gretel, the children of a poor broom binder and a laundress, are in eager anticipation of Christmas. Vivacious Gretel, willing to console and cheer up her dejected brother, shows him a surprise made by their mother – a delicious, fantastic, crispy, cream-filled pie. The children cannot resist the temptation and take a bite of the forbidden Christmas dessert. Having brightened up, they begin to dance and sing, turn the house into a complete shambles and trample on all the linen they were asked to rinse and hang.

The mother comes back and finds the mess at home, her spoilt chore, the bitten pie and turns her children out of the house in a fit of anger, so that they would go to the winter forest to look for berries. Hänsel and Gretel run in fright to the dark night forest…

The father, who has returned from his job, is triumphant – he has been lucky today to sell all the brooms and has bought lots of food for the money he earned! What a feast there is going to be at their house at Christmas! Seeing his wife’s bewilderment, he asks her: “Where are the kids?” “They might well be at the Black Stone!” his spouse replies. “What do you mean, at the Black Stone?” the father exclaims and tells her that on full-moon nights all the witches gather by the Black Stone, and the most terrifying of them, who is called the Old Witch, uses gingerbreads and sweets to decoy little children into her house and then fries them in her stove and devours them leaving no remainder!

The inconsolable parents run to the forest to look for their children.

Scene 2

Wandering through the forest, the children suddenly become the witnesses of a miracle: as though having heeded their prayers, winter changes into spring and then into summer, and all the glade appears to be dotted with strawberries. The forest is poetic and full of mysteries. The flowers are nodding to Gretel with their corollas, and a cuckoo starts to sing in the depths of the forest. As if they obeyed a magical call from the future, the children grow up and ask the cuckoo questions about the fate, the future, and the mysterious events which await them in the world. Having got involved in this fortunetelling, the kids don’t notice that they have eaten all the berries. What will they do? Their mother strictly told them that she wouldn’t let them in without berries. Darkness rapidly falls upon the forest and the orchestra. Frightened Gretel presses herself to her brother. It seems to her as if there were some huge white figures or mysterious faces staring at them. Hänsel cries and it seems as though the night echo consciously and animately repeated all his questions. Gretel, seized with horror, desperately calls Dad and Mom… All of a sudden, in the night forest there appears the Sandman. He sings his everyday song, being on his rounds, and makes the children fall asleep. Before going to sleep, Hänsel and Gretel sing a touching prayer.

As soon as the kids close their eyes, on the glade appear the Angels. Following the mysterious and solemn rhythm of the music, the Angels silently surround the sleeping children, guard them and make some enigmatic preparations.

Scene 3

In the morning, taking the place of the friendly Sandman, on the glade appears the Dawn Fairy. She awakens all the nature and the sleeping kids. Having woken up, Hänsel and Gretel tell each other about the dreams they had. It appears that they dreamt about one and the same thing: those Angels who flew around them and protected them.

Suddenly they catch sight of an amazing little house made of gingerbreads, sweets and marmalade! Having snapped off a little piece, they hear an abominable and disgusting voice above the house and then comes out its owner – the Old Witch. She tries to win the children’s favour by means of flatter and false kindness, and having failed, utters a terrible spell. The kids realise that they are going to fall victim to the Old Witch and the latter is pampering and feeding them in order to eat them up!

When the Witch asks Gretel to poke up the fire in the stove, Gretel cunningly asks her to show how it should be done, and then the children together push her into the stove! Suddenly all the enchanted “gingerbread children” come back to life. For a long time, they have languished in captivity at the Old Witch’s house, waiting for their dismal end. The gingerbread children thank their rescuers, and Hänsel and Gretel tell them about the Angels who sent them to help the wretched. Now the meaning of their common dream becomes clear!

Hänsel and Gretel’s parents, who spent all the night wandering through the forest in search of their missing children, appear on stage and hug their son, daughter and all the rescued kids. Everyone praises the Lord who never leaves people in trouble!

Production Group

Production creative director – Mikhail Kislyarov

Production conductor – Alexander Zhilenkov

Production director – Olga Aristova

Production designer – Oleg Skudar

Projection designer – Anna Koleychuk

Costume designer – Olga Oshkalo

Animator – Dmitriy Koleychuk

Light designer – Vladimir Ivakin

Children choir director – Ekaterina Kalagina

Concertmasters – Sizuka Toritani and Alexander Zhilenkov

Orchestra director – Valentina Novikova

Lighting technician – Denis Grachyov

 

Characters and Cast

Hänsel – Alina Shakirova (mezzo-soprano)

Gretel – Nadezhda Nivinskaya (soprano)

Father – Yuriy Baranov (baritone)

Mother – Lyudmila Toradze (soprano)

The Old Witch – Sergey Moskalkov (baritone)

The Old Witch’s Retinue – Denis Todorov, Stanislav An, Alexey Sergeyev, Kseniya Krokhina, Natalya Andreyeva.

Sandman – Ekaterina Kalagina (soprano)

Dawn Fairy – Kseniya Molotkova (soprano)

Children – Darya Vuychik, Anna Mukhanchikova, Nadezhda Boyko, Kseniya Molotkova, Anzhela Kurakina, Viktoriya Aliyeva.

Angels – Alyosha Volkov, Polina Bagautdinova, Kamilla Anisey, Sonya

The Author of One Opera. Humperdinck’s Biography

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Engelbert Humperdinck was born in 1854 in the town of Siegburg, in an apartment provided by the Latin gymnasium. His father taught ancient languages there and harboured a dream of his son embarking on a career in the sphere of classical philology. However, the mother of the future composer, a cantor’s daughter having a wonderful soprano voice, noticed early her son’s remarkable musical talent.

From his youth, Engelbert started to compose vocal opuses to his father’s lyrics and operas to Goethe’s works (“Claudine von Villa Bella”), as well as many other pieces. He showed his works to distinguished composers who then had an influence on the German music life (Ferdinand Hiller, Franz Lachner). The composers approved of their young counterpart’s works, gave him lessons and provided him with references and patronage so that he could obtain scholarships. Humperdinck won a lot of them in his life, and they made it feasible for him to study in the conservatoires of Cologne and Munich, as well as to travel across Europe and North Africa.

One of such trips, in 1880, became crucial.

 

In Naples, Humperdinck got acquainted with Richard Wagner whom he worshipped, just as almost all Europe did at that time. Wagner took a great liking to the young man, and the great maestro invited him to his famous theatre in Bayreuth. Humperdinck spent two years there, assisting Wagner in producing the stage mystery play “Parsifal”, preparing the score for publishing, working on so called “orchestra proofs”, gaining an invaluable orchestral experience.

 

There is a story which reads as follows. Once, during a rehearsal of “Parsifal”, a massive decoration would fail to be lowered within the time specified in the score. After three unsuccessful attempts, Wagner, in a fit of rage, ran out of the theatre, having slammed the door. Then Humperdinck ventured to supplement the score with several bars of his own which allowed for matching the end of the music phrase to bringing the decoration to a stop. In the evening, Humperdinck showed his bold “insertion” to the maestro, who accepted it with gratitude!

 

Also, Humperdinck repeatedly participated in strange performances for Ludwig II of Bavaria. The famous sponsor king, who adored Wagner and had the Bayreuth built for him, at the end of his short life was suffering a mental disorder. His passionate love for opera combined with an acute form of misanthropy, that is why the magnificent performances were given to Ludwig alone in a completely empty auditorium. Humperdinck was the conductor.

 

However, the life in Bayreuth and the necessity to be constantly involved in somebody else’s (Wagner’s) creative work gradually began to oppress Humperdinck. “I dream of the day when I finally get off the path of the ideas which, although brilliant, are not my own… I’m longing for complete creation liberty,” wrote Humperdinck in one of his letters. In 1882, Humperdinck left Bayreuth and Wagner who died a year later. Humperdinck taught a great deal in various European conservatoires, including Berlin Conservatoire (from 1900 till his death in 1921) where one of his students was Kurt Weill, the famous author of “The Threepenny Opera”.

 

Apart from “Hänsel and Gretel”, which brought him fame in 1883, Humperdinck also wrote a lot of stage, vocal, instrumental and choral opuses, including some operas based on fairy tales: “The Seven Little Kids”, “King’s Children”, the music for Shakespeare’s plays, as well as ballads for choir and orchestra, etc. His composition experiments in the area of “bound melodrama” influenced the composers of the Second Viennese School and the 12-tone music.

 

Humperdinck kept in touch with Cosima Wagner, the widow of the late maestro, who died in 1883, and was a teacher of their son Siegfried Wagner, who subsequently became a conductor.

The latter referred afterwards to Humperdinck’s best work, “Hänsel and Gretel”, as “the most important opera for the German culture” after his great father’s “Parsifal”.

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The text is based on the article in the magazine “Siegburger Blätter”
(http://www.blattwelt.de/siegburger_blaetter/nr_1_humperdinck.pdf)

The opera “Hänsel and Gretel” as the godchild of the German music

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Richard Wagner’s wife and spiritual companion Cosima (who was Franz Liszt’s daughter) once pointed out to young Humperdinck that the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm might be a good material for operas. They involved both mysticism and folklore features – all that attracted the German music thought at that time. Evidently, the composer accepted that advice with gratitude, but, for some time, didn’t develop it into anything concrete.

Yet profound consequences can sometimes arise from small causes.

In April, 1890, Humperdinck’s youngest married sister Adelheid wrote a letter to her brother, who was in the Rhine city of Cologne, asking him to compose music to four dramatic extracts from a piece she had written for her children for Christmas, “My dear sweet gingerbread brother! I have finished ‘Hänsel and Gretel’ and beg you, my Angel Beard [his sister toyed with the name Engelbert], to help me! Please, compose something truly lovely, charming, with a folk air!”

Humperdinck posted the four extracts back to her right away having titled them as follows: “A nursery mystery play by Adelheid Wette set to the music by Uncle”. “A nursery mystery play” (Ein Kinderstuben-Weihfestspiel) was a humorous allusion to Wagner’s Bayreuthian “Stage mystery play”, i. e. to “Parsifal” (Bühnen-Weihfestspiel Parsifal).

The children touchingly sang those plays at Christmas, and later it was decided by the family council that Uncle would not leave that composition, but would turn it into a real “Singspiel”, i. e. a music play with spoken dialogues. Humperdinck took the sheet music to Frankfurt-upon-the-Main where he worked as an opera reviewer for the newspaper “Frankfurter Zeitung”.

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Then another eminent composer intervened: Humperdinck was visited by Hugo Wolf. After Humperdinck had played on the piano all the completed pieces of the singspiel to Wolf, the latter persuaded Humperdinck to develop the idea into a real continuous opera. Obviously, Humperdinck himself had felt by then the importance of his creation, since he had twice postponed his wedding with his fiancée Hedwig Taxer, until there took place “the wedding of the opera”, i. e. its orchestration. His fiancée reluctantly accepted the delays and one day she finally received the almost completed score with a poetic dedication:

What I once sang you on the Rhine,
What used to jingle on the Main,
And what in far Bayreuth I found -
Is yours, my Love, in every sound!

Was einst gesungen Dir am Rhein,
was je erklungen mir am Main,
und was ich fand fern in Bayreuth,
sei, Liebste, heute Dir geweiht!

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Finally, in autumn, 1893, the opera was orchestrated and performed at Christmas in Weimar Opera Theatre.

As a conductor debuted 29-year-old Richard Strauss, who became a brilliant opera composer afterwards. He expressed great enthusiasm for “Hänsel and Gretel”, “This is indeed a masterpiece of immense value! What a heart-freshening humour, what delightful melodies, what elegant precision of instrumentation and excellent polyphony!”

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The opera was later conducted by another brilliant composer, Gustav Mahler, who wrote in a letter of his,

“ ‘Hänsel and Gretel’ is a masterpiece and one of my favourite examples of mutual enrichment of music and literature.”

 
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