$ eprinted from yesterday's late editions.

Thomas Pasatieri's operatic setting of Chekhov's "The Seagull" received its East Coast premiere at the Kennedy Center Wednesday and it is a fine evening in the theater.

If such an evaluation of a vocal work seems suspiciously guarded, it is not because of doubts or uncertainty of opinion. It is because the mixture of elements that make this version of "The Seagull" work is complicated and sometimes contradictory.

First of all, there is Chekhov's play. Its dramatic strength is left secure in this rewrite for opera. Frank Corsaro directs a performance that would be splendid even without the music. And for once, the sung English is intelligible most of the time.

Next, the distinguished cast, virtually the same one that premiered the work in Houston two years ago, acts as well as it sings. Singers of the fame of Evelyn Lear, for instance, do not often lend their talents to risky new works by young Americans. And here, in the central role of the haughty actress Irina Arkadina, she justifies the risk.

Then there is the music, Pasatieri comes to town with a mixed reputation as a composer - with some critics particularly critical of his conservative, often eclectic style. But, at its strongest moments, this opera proves that there's nothing wrong with the style as long as it is used with lyric freshness and imagination.

All told, "The Seagull," while hardly a work for the avant-grade, is one of the Washington Opera's more sucessful ventures in recent years. Certainly, Wednesday night's audience seemed to think so.

"The Seagull" is the story of the inhabitants of the actress" country house. The question posed early in the play by her son, Constantine, is whether the group is "a charmed circle" or "a web of wasted lives." The answer becomes clear as individuals slip into frustration, drink, despair and suicide.

Rather than conceive the work as a musical while, Pasatieri takes it in episodes - "numbers," if you will. Some seen downright cliched. Others are good, but not very different from lots of other music in this style.

Lear's music, on the whole, was less individual. But her singing was beautiful, and the acting so good that she held her place as the central figure.

Patricia Wells, in the role of Masha, had one enormously taxing aria that drew bravos.

The redoubtable John Reardon, as a popular novelist who is Arkadina's lover, has a charming little song in the second act in which he puts down the critics by mocking them: "It's charmingly written, but it doesn't stand up to 'War and Peace.'"

The hard truth remains, though, that without such a cast, without Corsaro and, above all, without Chekhov, Pasatieri would have a rocky time for much of the evening. He should stop cranking out music at such a rate and start throwing more of it away and trying again. There is more there than his detractors give him credit for, because in "The Seagull" he shows an ability to write better opera than most others now writing them.

There are repeats tonight and Sunday afternoon.