As a working American orchestra, we in the Columbus Symphony have to do what ever is necessary to make a buck. Like anywhere in the world these days, the buck is not a lofty icon, and working for it is often not so lofty either.
Today we started rehearsals for our local production of Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 Hansel and Gretel, a mediocre but heartfelt opera based on the Grimm's Fairy Tale. The idea is to present it as the operatic match for the perennial Nutcracker, which I've played at least 400 times in my career. (And which, I might add, is a jewelbox of perfect melodies and lush orchestration)
The composer's name alone should give a hint as to how marvelously mundane his work is. There are a few resplendent moments in the music itself, interspersed with painfully lumpy, starchy stretches which ache for a good ironing.
As an experienced musician, even I am hard pressed to make sense of it, to flesh it out, rather than flush it, which I'd prefer. But that is in fact what I am paid to do, smooth out the wrinkles in this imitation polyester halloween costume of a regal Victorian comforter.
The orchestration is abominable. To give Humperdinck some credit, the reduced version we are performing sours what little is redeeming in the original, much larger orchestration. Perhaps it was arranged by a middle school band director. (no offence to their noble cause) All instruments seem to be playing all the time, with no relief for either the listener or the performer. Not only does it tax the strongest players to the point of dubious, fatigued technical output, but the balance within the orchestra is hampered. It's difficult for a violin solo to be heard over a trumpet accompaniment. The problems of balance will be further antagonized by having to match childlike voices with so many instruments playing.
Harmonically I can give it credit for being somewhat appropriate for its period. It's like a bad Victorian crazy quilt with lots of nice material which is horribly matched. Obviously Wagner's influence features heavily in Humperdinck's head, among other popular composers of his time. Some of it sounds like Wagner after a spicy Moroccan dinner, with several bottles of moldy wine. It heaves around from key to key, slobbering over each before stumbling to the next, with a wan smile on its face. It is difficult to tune and pharse elegantly under such duress. What little childish innocence is captured in the melody is ruptured abruptly by heavy footed harmonic density, or an inappropriate dissonance in the name of modernity. Before long, the smell of leaky diapers wafts up to meet the listener.
Don't get me wrong. I think it will delight those mellow holiday revelers who can snuggle up with their children and smile at their good fortunes. They will bask in the warmth of the story and its one or two memorable scenes. And the music will somehow fit. Without anything to compare it to directly, it will sound appropriate, even fitting, though they will wonder why it's a bit out of tune and perhaps a bit loud for the singers. But they will go home happy, I believe, that they have shared something artistic with the family, and that they have supported the arts. And they will be right. And I will do my professional best to make their money and time well spent.