A bunch of hefty ladies with hourglass figures stuffed into bustled dresses, 18-button gloves and dog-collar necklaces came trooping out and boomed, "WE ARE DAIN-TY LIT-TLE FAIR-IES EV-ER SINGING, EV-ER DANC-ING." The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company is back with a month of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

This is a peculiar year for Victorian satire, bombarded as we have been with the idea that anything at all, done in Victorian dress or Victorian decor, is amusing. All around us are Victorian museum exhibits, Victorian blouses, Victorian television series, Victorian sofas, Victorian Hamlets. We don't laugh and call them ridiculous any more; we smile and call them marvelous.

What, then, is the proper response to two Victorians who are making fun - not of Victorian life, especially, but of such of its institutions as the legislature, upper class, military establishment and love, which have been known in other eras, even including our own? In the opening production, "Iolanthe," people tittered more at the innocent use of the word "fairy" than at the formidable intentional wit.

This may be partly the fault of the production, for all its spirited beauty. There is plenty of gusto, but not much playfulness. John Reed articulates his comic speeches with exactness - he doesn't roll them around and makes them his own the way his predecessor Martyn Green did, for example.

Perhaps this is related to the general respect we now have for the era - we have learned that Victoriana loses its value when we add modern touches. And yet we see individual performers add their own humorous touches to those of 19th century opera and ballet without being disrespectful to the material; surely members of the Victorian D'Oyly Carte Opera Company did so, too.

But this is quibbling. Any Gilbert and Sullivan is better than no Gilbert and Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte Gilbert and Sullivan is generally better than any. Friday the company opens its "H.M.S. Pinafore," which will have two performances Saturday; next weekend, "Iolanthe" will be put on again. "The Mikado," "Princess Ida" and "Pirates of Penzance" are also in this engagement, which ends April 29.