Handel's "Saul" generated large quantities of excitement in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Monday night where it opened a Handel Festival the Center plans to extend through at least another year.

The reasons for the audience's enthusiasm for the performance, which ran nearly three hours even though cut by over half an hour, were immediately clar in the music and the performance.

Handel writes in "Saul" with all the feeling for great drama that marks his operas and which he successfully carried over into his oratorios. The story is the familiar Old Testament one centering round Saul, his intense jealousy of the young, handsome, triumphant David, and the friendship of David and Jonathan.

While the chorus dominates the scene, the figure of Saul is always in the foreground as he goes so far as to hurl his javelin at David, then orders Jonathan to kill him, and finally makes his famous visit to the Witch of Endor to find out his future.

With every theatrical device at his command, Handel paints with his music: Rushing scales descend when the javelin is thrown; an inflexible downward scale supports the chorus on envy; the orchestra turns onimous in the visit to Endor.

Conductor Stephen Simon was the chief generator of the excitement in the performance, having at his command a crack chorus which will be singing again in "Solomon" in April. With untiring success they displayed many strengths: flawlessly clear words, fine tone, stylish phrasing and attack. They were trained by Norman Scribner.

Simon moved the music along handsomely, letting the lyrical arias, which are few, make their milder points between the urgent action of the central plot. His cuts were well-chosen and omitted nothing vital, though some of the absent scenes are lovely. The early trio describing Saul is "the monster atheist" should, however, surely have been sung as a choral rather than a solo trio.

Among the eight soloists, Maureen Forrester's David and Morley Meredith's Saul were examples of fine singing and style, the latter especially in his handling of the recitatives in which most of his lines were cast. David has, in the final elegy over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, the most moving music of the whole piece, and Forrester was impressively up to its challenge.

A running Handel festival is a good idea. "Rinaldo" comes Feb. 28.