Evening Prayer
2 Dec 2011
Inside the Classics

The orchestra has been playing Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic children’s opera, Hänsel & Gretel in one form or another for pretty much two solid weeks now, and I’ll admit, I wasn’t sorry to finish the last show of the run this afternoon. Orchestra musicians are used to a constantly changing stream of repertoire, and we rarely play a full concert more than four times before moving on to the next thing, so a two-week run (including six performances in the last three days of a stripped-down version for schools) feels like an eternity to us.

Still, if you’re going to do a long-running show, you could do a whole lot worse than our production of H&G. It’s become something of a Thanksgiving-adjacent tradition for us, and it just never fails to thrill audiences of all ages. The Baldwin sisters (longtime ItC fans may remember them making a cameo in our second season of concerts) have a little something to do with that, of course, as does the cackling, snorting Vera Mariner, who seems to make her child-devouring Witch a little more over-the-top and hilarious every time we remount the production. And then there are the astonishingly talented folks from In the Heart of the Beast, who bring larger-than-life magic to several important scenes.

But it’s Humperdinck’s music that gives this opera its soul. I know, I would say that, but honestly, the best measure of audience engagement I know is how quiet the room is, and I have never seen the Evening Prayer fail to make a packed concert hall fall utterly silent.

That’s Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Stade right there, and those simple harmonies, the soft murmur of the strings just supporting the vocals from underneath – it’s like a warm blanket over the entire audience, which is, of course, exactly what Hansel and Gretel, lost in the woods as darkness falls, are praying for in this scene. Humperdinck brings the rising third figure back, usually beginning in the violas, whenever a sense of calm and safety is called for in the opera. The last time it’s heard is at the beginning of the final scene, as a chorus of children formerly imprisoned by the now-dispatched witch sing, “We are saved! We are freed!”

It’s comfort food, sure, but it’s brilliantly orchestrated comfort food, and the string writing, in particular, is just masterful throughout the opera. And while I might be ready to move on for this year (to next week’s Messiah, which is another annual treat I don’t tire of,) I’m never sorry to come back to Humperdinck’s fairy tale world.

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