Hansel und Gretel has probably been performed and recorded in English translation more than any other foreign language opera, due at least in part to widespread efforts to market it as a "starter" opera for children, and therefore make it as user-friendly as possible. Chandos' admirable Opera in English series has produced many landmark English language recordings, including works like Lulu and The Makropulos Case, but with so many fine translated versions of Hansel and Gretel available, this might seem to be the one opera that needn't be tackled. Several things, though, make it a valuable addition to the catalog. Not least is the excellent new translation by David Pountney. It's less literal than traditional versions, but it's clever and poetic, and hearing the opera begin with a verse other than "Susie, little Susie, pray what is the news" is hugely refreshing. Charles Mackerras' conducting captures the score's broad romantic sweep, but he doesn't quite pull off the difficult trick of making the children's music sound genuinely playful and spontaneous. Aside from that caveat, his shapely reading and loving attention to detail reveal the score as the jewel that it is. Only Rebecca Evans as Gretel, with a voice that turns shrill in its upper register, falls short of the stellar performances of the rest of the cast. Jennifer Larmore is appealingly warm and exuberant as Hansel. Jane Henschel, as the Witch, makes the character at first funny, then scary, without mugging and without sacrificing beautiful, full tone. Rosalind Plowright and Robert Hayward as the parents offer personable and vocally solid performances.
As is unfortunately common in this series, Chandos' engineering overdoes the simulation of theatrical space by fiddling with the volume of different singers' miking. It's extremely distracting to have one singer in an ensemble sound close enough to hug, and the other seem to be standing at the far end of a long hallway, or to have a solo begin at normal volume and then fade to near inaudibility in a misguided attempt to approximate stage movement. That kind of acoustic vagary can be unavoidable in a live performance, but for a studio recording it would be preferable in most situations just to have the singers lined up and miked at levels that balance with each other and with the orchestra. Is anyone at Chandos listening?