6 magical fairy-tale operas

3 May 2018

Since the 18th century, composers have used fairy tales as inspiration for their operas. From German Märchenoper to Russian folklore, from Rossini to Massenet, from witches to water sprites, here are some of the best fairy-tale operas.

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Victorian Opera's production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. Photo: Charlie Kinross

Hansel and Gretel

A key example of Märchenoper (German for fairy-tale opera) and the most performed of them all. Engelbert Humperdinck originally wrote Hansel and Gretel as four songs for his nieces to perform in their backyard puppet theatre. Its 1893 Weimar premiere was conducted by Richard Strauss and within a year it was performed in 72 opera houses around the world. In 1923, it was the first full opera to be broadcast live on radio. Combining German folk songs and Wagnerian moments, it has introduced generations of children around the world to opera.

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Victorian Opera's production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. Photo: Charlie Kinross

La Cenerentola

Rossini composed his opera buffa version of Cinderella in less than a month when he was 25. Partly due to limitations with theatrical special effects, Rossini took much of the magic out of the story and in the process transformed many aspects of the traditional tale. The evil stepmother becomes a stepfather; the fairy godmother, a philosopher; the glass slipper, a golden bracelet; and the handsome prince goes undercover to Cinderella’s house dressed as his own valet. One of the first identifiable fairy-tale operas, it is full of clever puns and witticisms and features some of Rossini’s finest writing for ensembles and solo voice (including two popular coloratura arias).

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Rusalka

From The Little Mermaid to Udine, the German myth of Lorelei to the Czech folklore of Rusalka, legends of water nymphs who seduce mortal men endure across Europe. Whilst on holiday in Denmark, poet Jaroslav Kvapil was inspired to write a libretto based on the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and Freidrich de la Motte-Fouqué. As in The Little Mermaid, Rusalka gives up her voice in exchange for the love of a human but in Dvořák’s opera she takes revenge on the Prince who betrays her. Rich in its orchestration and harmonic style, Rusalka contains some of the most beautiful melodies Dvořák ever wrote including the famous aria ‘Song to the Moon’ and a bewitching tone painting of a moonlight forest.

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Cendrillon

A frothy and whimsical opera by French Romantic composer Jules Massenet, staying true to Perrault’s popular telling of the Cinderella tale. Complete with wicked stepmother, fairy godmother, glamourous ball and the imperative glass slipper, Massenet tells the familiar story with wit and humour, adding a fantasy love scene in an enchanted forest for a touch more magic. Along with generous melodies and sumptuous orchestral textures, Massenet uses a pastiche of Baroque musical style to give it an aristocratic and old-fashioned feel. The first production in 1899 ran for 60 performances and it has undergone a revival in popularity since the 1980s.

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Victorian Opera's production of Cendrillon. Photo: Charlie Kinross

Ruslan and Lyudmila

Glinka, the father of Russian musical nationalism, initiated the national tradition of using poet Alexander Pushkin’s works for opera librettos. Ruslan and Lyudmila is a quest opera with all the elements of fantastic adventure and fairy-tale love: a quest to rescue a beautiful princess; a brave knight with a magic sword; a kindly wizard; and a malevolent dwarf whose power lies in his beard. With an enduringly popular overture and kaleidoscopic orchestral score, Glinka combined Russian folk songs and Persian melodies to create an exotic atmosphere of magic. With this opera, he also pioneered musical techniques, such as the seven-step whole-tone scale, which would be central to the evolution of Russian orchestral music.

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The Sleeping Beauty

Respighi originally wrote his version of La bella dormente nel bosco for Vittorio Podrecca’s famous Italian marionette company I Piccoli. The opera was interpreted by puppets, with singers in the orchestra pit. Its 1922 premiere was a great hit and it remained in the company’s repertory for 20 years. Respighi described his colourful score as an ‘innocent mockery of contemporary melodrama’ and filled it with nods to other composers such as Wagner, Schubert, Debussy and Puccini. The opera is faithful to Perrault’s tale with the main twist being that Sleeping Beauty is in her slumber for 300 years, allowing Respighi to conclude with a boisterous cakewalk/foxtrot finale. 

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Victorian Opera's production of The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Charlie Kinross

Hansel and Gretel was part of Victorian Opera's Season 2014 and 2018. The Sleeping Beauty was part of Victorian Opera's Season 2017. Cendrillon was part of Victorian Opera's Season 2016.