`Hansel and Gretel' opera in new TV version

There are those who maintain that, despite its being about children, Engelbert Humperdinck's opera ``Hansel and Gretel'' is too sophisticated, even harrowing, for them. August Everding, director of the uncommonly well-cast performance to be seen on ``Great Performances'' Friday (PBS, 9-11 p.m., check local listings) certainly will have none of that. In fact, he goes right after a juvenile audience as the overture begins: On an empty plain, animation places the frame of an elaborate opera house that soon becomes a real stone and mortar structure. It is rapidly filled by exceedingly well-behaved children who ``watch'' a TV-studio performance of the opera that could never take place on any stage.

Mr. Everding, celebrated for his live productions, obviously does not feel entirely at home with film. He mixes naturalistic sets, animation, and various special effects to tell his tale, but some of those effects are not convincing. Occasionally, he cuts back to the children in the theater, but it looks as if they are reacting for the camera rather than to a stage production. It's also hard to tell if the colors on my preview tape were dull because it was a poor copy, or if the entire show was intended to have a sepia wash.

This may not be an ideal ``Hansel and Gretel'' to watch, but it has as fine a cast as could be hoped for. Brigitte Fassbaender as Hansel is boyish without being unbearably precious; Edita Gruberova as Gretel looks youthful without being unnecessarily coy, and both sing their parts impressively. Sena Jurinac has a splendid time being evil and singing vividly as the Witch; having Hermann Prey as the Father is regal casting; Helga Dernesch makes the Mother's every moment count; and Norma Burrowes's Sandman is vocally especially beautiful.

Sir Georg Solti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in a vibrant, exciting performance, that shows us the musical riches of this score and the deep debt Humperdinck owed to his teacher and mentor, Richard Wagner.

The program will be telecast in stereo in many locations. So tune in and enjoy a musical/vocal feast, sung in German with English subtitles, that at least intermittently is matched by an engaging visual production.

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