Julius Rudel and Catherine Malfitano worked magic on Massenet's "Manon" Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center, and the result was one of the greatest opera delights in many seasons here.

From the opening bars of the orchestral prelude, Rudel's deep insight and affection for Massenet's score were apparent. Every nuance, every moment of suspended drama and musical charisma was illuminated with the touch of mastery.And every movement on stage, each singer and dancer, seemed dedicated to fulfilling Rudel's vision of how the lovely opera should look and sound

Malfitano is an ideal Manon. She has touched the secrets of the role in tone, in exquisite timing, in that strange mixture of ardent love for Des Grieux and instant desire for diamonds and gorgeous clothes that lead her to betray him That she could be as stunning in the Gavotte in the Cours-la-Reine, and as wantonly seductive minutes later in St. Sulpice was only one measure of her assimilation of the real depths of the part.

Everyone around her, in a large cast, seemed intent on creating memorable portraits. Nico Castel makes a Morfontaine of witty fragrance, full of superb detail, and marvelously sung. Vernon Hartman's Bretigny had strength and enough virility to make it quite believable that Manon would leave Des Grieux for him.

Henry Price looks and acts exactly as Des Grieux should: ardent, trusting in Manon's love, and eventually, after that quick flirtation with holy orders, more than ready to return to her bed and arms. Alas, his voice is simply not of the caliber to fill the dramatic limits of the part, nor his vocal style, with its constant slurring acceptable.

Interestingly, the French language , so badly mauled in "Faust" the previous night, was treated with elegance and finesse by most of the singers in "Manon."

The whole thing was set against a Fragonard backdrop, with color and life in fine Capobianco-devised movements. Even the extensive menagerie in the first act-cat, dogs, duck, white rabbit, pigeons-and a very busy swing were all part of the imaginative picture.

It would be unfair not to praise the fine trio, Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette of Sharon Daniels, Gwenlynn Little and Kathleen Hegierski. These roles, that have launched many famous singers, were appropriately sung. This is an outstanding production and should not be missed. It is being repeated Saturday night.