The Wagnerian Engelbert Humperdinck is one of the most important figures in German fairy-tale opera. The success of a shortish “Märchenoper” composed to a libretto by the composer's own sister, Adelheid Wette, convinced him to write a full-evening children's opera based on the famous Brothers Grimm story, with slight departures from the original plot. The piece was immediately declared a masterpiece by Humperdinck's contemporary Richard Strauss, who conducted the fairy-tale opera at its Weimar premiere. Greeted with instant and enormous acclaim, the work went on to conquer the world. This production of the piece is being directed by the Spaniard Rafael R. Villalobos, winner of Opera Europa's directing competition in Graz.
Hänsel and Gretel have been hungry for days, because their family is very poor and there is nothing to eat at home. They are waiting for their mother, hoping that she will bring a bit of food. Although they should be working, Hänsel is so grumpy that Gretel feels compelled to tell him that the neighbour woman has given them a jug of milk, which will serve as their supper. Unable to resist temptation, Hänsel tastes the milk, and the two siblings dance and play. Their mother arrives and scolds them. In all the commotion, she herself upsets the milk jug, smashing it and spilling the milk. There will be no supper after all. In her fury, the desperate woman sends the children to gather strawberries in the forest. No sooner has she started to rest than her husband returns home in a remarkably good mood. He has brought a surprise: a bag full of groceries. Today is their lucky day, because he has managed to sell all his wares in the city at a good price before the big holiday.
He is alarmed to learn that his wife has sent Hänsel and Gretel into the forest, remembering that it is the home of the terrifying Gingerbread Witch, who turns lost children into gingerbread and then devours them. The two parents set off to find the children.
In the forest, Hänsel and Gretel have filled the basket with strawberries, as their mother instructed. Although they could go home now, they start to play instead. In the excitement of the game, the still-famished Hänsel gobbles up all the strawberries. It is too late to gather more, as it is growing dark. The forest is frightening, full of strange shadows and strange echoes that terrify the children. The Sleep Fairy comes and rocks the children to sleep by singing.
Morning comes, and Hänsel and Gretel are awakened by the Dew Fairy. As they wake, they discover a marvellous and mouth-watering gingerbread house. The Witch enchants the ever-hungry Hänsel, who has eaten a piece of the house. Gretel, on the other hand, is forced to serve her. After the Witch decides that she has fattened Hänsel up sufficiently, she is about to bake him in the oven. Gretel, however, outwits her, and it is the Witch who topples into the flames instead. The spell is broken, and all the gingerbread children regain their human forms. Just as they are freed, Hänsel and Gretel's parents also arrive. Together, everyone rejoices in the defeat of the wicked one, vanquished by the clever and courageous little girl.