Drama has always been the strongest point with the Stuttgart Ballet, and drama was indeed what we got last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House,as the company began its month-long engagement with the U.S. premiere of John Numeier's "Lady of the Camellias."

Though the reaction of the opening-night audience was gratifyingly enthusiastic, a first encounter with this ambitious, grandly produced 3-hour opus leaves the question of its ultimate artistic impact rather moot. It is assuredly a drama, based on the celebrated romantic novel (and play) by Alexandre Dumas, fils. But it's also, of course, a ballet-the story is told through movement, including gesture, mime and dance, and it is set to music by Chopin.

What remains problematical is the conjoining of the two-has Neumeier succeeded in enabling the ballet to bear an exceptionally heavy and intricate dramatic burden, or do the two genres merely coexist in an uncomfortable alliance?

It may be that it will take the American eye some getting used to the particular merits of "Lady"; modern, storyteelling ballets are not much in vogue in this country. It may also be that first night production problems dampened some of the requisite atmosphere-the evening was 25 minutes late in getting started due to technical difficulties, though only minor mishaps were visible once things were in motion.

Whatever the reason, the debut performance here seemed far less emotionally involving than such an overweight tale ought to be. Much of the drama emerged as little more than surface dramatics, and with one major exception, the dancing appeared to add but little in the way of deepened sensibility.

The basic outline of the story most of us know, if not from Dumas, then from Verdi ("La Traviata") and/or Garbo (her immortal performance in Cukor's "Camille")-hotheaded young Armand falls for Marguerite Gautier, the consumptive coutesan who's the toast of Paris, but she gives him up on the appeal of his distraught father, and dies brokenhearted. These major roles afford ample opportunity for Marcia Haydee, as Marguerite, Egon Madsen, as Armand, and Reid Anderson as the father, to display the king of distinguished, sensitive acting-dancing that has become the Stuttgart trademark over the years.

The ballet-presumably following Dumas-differs in two conspicuous respects from Verdi and Cukor; the action is larded with allusions to "manon Lescaut," and the characters of that novel are drawn into the proceedings as performers in a ballet-within-the-ballet; and in the death scene, Marguerite is alone, with Armand learning of her demise on the sidelines, reading her diary. Both of those maneuvers seem ineffectual in ballet terms-the "Manonn" intrusion is confusing and emotionally distracting, instead of adding an intensifying dimension, and the solo death scene deprives us of an important element of empathy.

The one passage in which the ballet rises to the dramatic occasion, and then some, perhaps, is the crucial renunciation scene, in which Duval (Anderson), Armand's father, succeeds in persuading Marguerite (Haydee) to relinquish her lover for his future's sake. Set to two great Chopin Preludes (A-Flat and D-Flat) and wondrously spare and eloquent in choreographic design, it uses space and line as measures of emotional distance. Significantly, the scene evoked the evening's largest burst of mid-performance applause.

The lesser characters, however, are rather thinly drawn, and a good deal of the dancing-the numerous ball scenes showing Marguerite's dissipated way of life, for example-looks like humdrum ballast, at first glance anyway.

However lean the pickings, the company as a whole handled its assignments brilliantly, it must be said. CAPTION:

Picture, Nora Kimball, Egon Madsen; by James M. Thresher-The Washington Post