Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love" is generally thought of as a charming opera with a brilliant tenor aria, and it has largely been the tenors who have kept it in business since its birth in 1832.

But at the Kenendy Center, Tuesday night, American singer Catherine Malfitano staked out a claim on "Elixir" for the sopranos in a brialliant debut in the main role of Adina. It was also Malfitano's debut here as a coloratura soprano, a phase of her career that is just beginning. To be quite specific, she demonstrated an affinity for the high-flown pyrotechnics of such roles that was hardly hinted at in her earlier work as a lyric soprano.

But if Malfitano was the standout in this infectious, bucolic protrait of the simple life in a 19th-century Italian village, it is hard to find serious fault with any element of this production, which was sung in Italian.

One essential is a good tenor as the peasant Nemorino who keeps reeling around the satge on the quack Dr. Dulcamara's elixir, which he consumes in generrous quantities on the premise that its effect farm owner Adina around to marrying him. It turns out to be wine.

This production's tenor, Italian Beniamino Prior, isn't quite in that league, but he sings the aria with impeccable phrasing and beautiful coloring. He is a fine Nemorino.

As the baritone, Sgt. Belcore, who sweeps into the village and upsets things by convincing Adina that she should marry him, Angelo Romero acts with elan and sings with skill.

In the role of the quack, Gimi Beni oversomes the handicap of a slightly frayed voice with real mastery of the comic style> both in singing and acting.

But the real news Tuesday night was that Catherine Malfitana shows potential of emerging as a major singer. Her recent decision to change her vocal technique and branch off into some of opera's more spectacular soprano parts seems, on this evidence, a fortunate one.

About the only complaint I can come up with is that orchestra and chorus, under conductor Theo Alcantara, had occassional problems staying together.