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'Hansel and Gretel' -- as you like it

There are three recordings of humperdinck's opera "Hansel and Gretel" in the schwann catalog, and each has something to distinguish it. Since the opera will have a live radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera (Saturday, Dec. 27, at 2 p.m., check local listings for station), it is worth considering them.

The oldest RCA set (ARL2-0637) remains beautiful, with the children sung handsomely by Helen Donath and Anna Moffo, and with a fine Witch from Christa Ludwig.

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London's new entry (OSA-12112) boasts the finest orchestra work on any "Hansel" recording since the legendary Karajan performance (available in this country only on British EMI import). The Vienna Philharmonic plays with elegance, unsurpassed beauty, and commitment for its conductor, Sir Georg Solti. Lucia Popp is not in top form as Gretel, but Brigitte Fassbander is a good Hansel. Anny Schlemm gives a very broad, vocally hammy account of the Witch (not to all tastes, to be sure), and Walter Berry has his share of problems as the Father.

It is just because Ileana Cotrubas and Fredrica von Stade are so superbly right as Gretel and Hansel that columbia's recent set (M2 35898) is top choice with room to spare. True, John Pritchard could have found a bit more energy for his conducting, and neither the Father of Sigmund Nimsgern nor the Mother of Christa Ludwig is up to expectations. But the two stars are irresistible. And when Elisabeth Soderstrom joins the performance as the Witch, the die is cast, for she demonst rates that the role can be sung with character, without vocal emoting and carryings-on, and still dominate and impress.

The added frosting on all these recordings is the casting of star singers as the two fairies. Here, Kiri Te Kanawa and Ruth Welting sound just right.

If you really must have the opera in English, the set on Odyssey (Y2-32546) is good enough, with Nadine Conner and Rise Stevens as the children, Max Rudolf conducting. The translation is by Ruth and Thomas Martin, and adequate for its kind. But by all means do not stick to that as your only "Hansel," and let's hope that the definitive mono set led by Karajan, with Irmgard Seefried and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, will soon make a long-overdue appearance in Seraphim.

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