ONE OF THE MOST distinctive places to hear opera in Europe is the Court Theater at Drottningholm -- the royal palace a few miles outside of Stockholm, which has been called Sweden's Versailles and is still the home of the Swedish royal family.

Built in 1766, the theater was unused from 1792 until the early 1920s and has been preserved in its original condition. Now, it is used regularly for performances of 18th-century opera with baroque scenery and stage machinery and an orchestra that performs on authentic old instruments in their original condition.

Judging by its recordings, the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble is one of the finest early-instrument ensembles in the world. Until now, American audiences have had no other way to judge it. But Washingtonians will be able to hear the ensemble in person Saturdaynight in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. The group winds up its first American tour with a program that includes Telemann's brilliant "Don Quixote" suite, vocal music of Handel and Purcell and instrumental music of Mozart, Sammartini and the Swedish baroque composer Johann Helmich Roman.

The ensemble's performance of one item on the program, Sammartini's Recorder Concerto in F, can be heard on the import album "Recorder Concerti" (with soloist Clas Pehrsson, who will perform in the Terrace). Also on the recording are Vivaldi's brilliant "Il Cardellino" and Telemann's Suite in A minor, one of the masterpieces of baroque orchestral music. The performance and sound are magnificent.

The ensemble can also be heard on another recording, "Handel, Monteverdi and Telemann," as it accompanies vocal selections by those composers. (Telemann is represented by his tragicomic funeral cantata for a canary.) Performing on the record is the young Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, who has a voice with rich tone and deep expressiveness, superbly trained in 18th-century style and technique. The album includes English program notes with song texts in the original languages. It may be a bit harder to find in Washington than the recorder album, but it is worth a special effort; it's one of the most satisfying baroque vocal recordings I have heard.

DROTTNINGHOLM BAROQUE ENSEMBLE -- "Recorder Concerti, With Soloist Clas Pehrsson" (BIS LP-210); "Handel, Monteverdi, Telemann, With Soloist Mezzo Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter" (PROP 9911); appearing Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Terrace Theater. The performance is sold out.