If it happened today, the story of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" might be headlined: "Tots Held in Old Woman's Mystery Death" -- at least in the papers that feature such headlines. With its hints of cannibalism and child abuse, its undertones of abject poverty and overtones of sinister supernatural forces, "Hansel and Gretel" is a natural for the supermarket tabloids, which would run big photos of the "death oven" and the mysterious, child-size cage outside of that incredibly kinky house in the woods.

All of which raises a question: What is so Christmasy about this material? Why are there several productions in Washington at this time every year, and why doesn't it have an "R" rating? There are two answers: gingerbread and music.

The gingerbread may stand for all the ingredients that give a happy ending (happy for everyone but witches) to this story of two hungry children, lost in the woods, surrounded by spooky creatures and heading for a deadly encounter with a child-devouring witch. As long as the terror and misery that fill most of the story are turned to gingerbread at the end, it can be considered suitable for children.

But the power of Humperdinck's music is more compelling than the gingerbread. Humperdinck was ideologically a Wagnerian, and his music shows strong traces of the master's influence, but (at least in this opera) he mastered the arts of brevity and simplicity at a level beyond the grasp of his mentor. His music is deeply imbued with the spirit of German folksong, it conceals its sophistication expertly, and it conveys precisely the special innocence, spontaneity and vulnerability of childhood. The first act packs considerable dramatic power into the roles of the distraught parents (who are much more sympathetic than they were in the original story) and the witch injects some fine comedy into the second act. But the overall impression is one of endangered innocence -- embodied perfectly in the children's "Evening Prayer" duet, which has brought warm tears (quite rightly) to the eyes of generations of opera-lovers.

The most satisfactory recording of "Hansel and Gretel" I know is a new video production containing the Metropolitan Opera's performance of Christmas afternoon 1982, conducted by Thomas Fulton with Frederica von Stade and Judith Blegen ideally cast in the title roles, Rosalind Elias as an uncommonly rambunctious, scary and hilarious witch, Jean Kraft and Michael Devlin exactly right in the roles of the parents. It is currently available only on LaserDisc (Pioneer PA-85-136, two sides), though a tape edition may be expected eventually. In this edition, the video dimension significantly enhances the impact of the music. Blegen and Von Stade manage to look and act remarkably like a pair of adolescents, and the Met's sets and costumes (familiar in Washington from their use at Wolf Trap a few seasons ago) are perfect. Norman Kelley's English translation, used in this production, is singable and lucid.

Those who are looking for an audio-only "Hansel and Gretel" in German will find a good one in the RCA reissue of a recording originally dating from 1974 (Arl2-0637, two LPs with libretto). This production has an all-star cast, with Arleen Auger and Lucia Popp in the walk-on roles of the Sandman and Dew Man, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the tiny but rich role of the father -- taped at a time when his voice still had most of its original charm and power. Anna Moffo's 1974 voice was also in good form for the role of Hansel, and Christa Ludwig was a fine witch. If (or more likely when) EMI reissues a digital remastering of Herbert von Karajan's version from the 1950s (featuring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), that may become a first choice in the audio-only category for many. Meanwhile, RCA's version does quite nicely.

Other Metropolitan Opera productions recently issued on LaserDisc:

*Puccini: La Bohe me. Teresa Stratas, Jose Carreras, Renata Scotto, Richard Stilwell, James Morris, Italo Tajo; James Levine conducting (Pioneer LaserDisc PA-85-135; three sides, with subtitles). In this performance (videotaped live at the matinee of Jan. 16, 1982), seeing the home video edition may actually be an improvement over being there in person. The chief problem with this production, lavishly designed and expertly directed by Franco Zeffirelli, is that the massive sets tend to dwarf the singers and to undermine the essential intimacy of "La Bohe me." Expert camera work restores the human dimensions and the intimacy.

Stratas -- visually the ideal tubercular heroine of video opera -- is in considerably better voice than she was for Zeffirelli's movie of "La Traviata," and Carreras is (or was for that matinee) vocally and dramatically outstanding. The only severe vocal problems in the cast are those of Renata Scotto, a visually flamboyant but vocally wobbly Musetta. The supporting roles are superbly filled, the chorus is as vivid theatrically as it is vocally, and Levine conducts a bright, finely emotive performance. There is not likely to be a better video "Bohe me" in a long while.

*Mozart: Idomeneo. Luciano Pavarotti, Ileana Cotrubas, Hildegarde Behrens, Frederica von Stade, John Alexander; James Levine conducting (Pioneer PA-85-134; four sides, with subtitles). "Idomeneo" is rather a stepchild among Mozart's mature operas -- primarily because it is in the (essentially baroque) opera seria form, which became obsolete during Mozart's lifetime. It is an opera for connoisseurs, containing some of Mozart's finest vocal music but precluded from mass popularity by its rather artificial Trojan War plot: Angry gods; a rash vow that will be broken if a father does not sacrifice his son to Neptune; a love triangle; a sea monster that threatens to destroy the whole island of Crete and a rather unconvincing deus ex machina solution.

But musically it is a masterpiece, and it gets masterpiece treatment in this well-styled performance with a stellar cast. In the title role, Pavarotti demonstrates conclusively that he can sing Mozart idiomatically when he chooses -- or could, at least, in 1982 when this live performance was taped. There was no serious question about the other principal singers, all of whom live up to their reputations. It seems strange to have a first-class "Idomeneo" in a video format before we have a "Trovatore" or "Rigoletto" of similar caliber, but it is also rather pleasant.