The nation's first Baptist went to the opera last night to see history's first Baptist lose his head.

President and Mrs. Carter occupied the Presidential Box in the Kennedy Center Opera House while the Vienna State Opera, in the second appearance of its two-week visit here, presented "Salome" by Richard Strauss. The crux of the famous opera, the libretto of which is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play, is Salome's successful demand for a silver platter carrying the newly severed head of John the Baptist.

The Carters were rewarded with a torrential performance of Strauss' early triumph as Zubin Mehta conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and a cast wonderfully headed by Leonie Rysanek in the title role, matched by a superb Baptist sung by Theo Adam.

With his famous symphonic tone poems already behind him when he wrote "Salome," Strauss used the resources of the full orchestra for an unbroken display of instrumental riches. With the orchestra often in full cry, it is no wonder the composer hoped for a Salome with the body of a 15-year-old but the voice of an Isolde.

Mehta's pacing of the opera was close to ideal, as was his use of the widest dynamic range. There are ways of diminishing some vulgarities in the score, but Mehta was not interested in any of them. He was, however, considerate of the singers, reining in the orchestra when and where possible.

Rysanek's Salome is without restraint of any kind. The moment she hears the voice of the incarcerated prophet, she is turned on to him. From that moment she begins a long, frenzied drive that leads her to more than one sexual paroxysm. From her entrance on, Rysanek moved in quick, darting steps as a willful, impatient tee-ager might. But as she zeroed in on her prey, her movements took on a determined, animalistic frenzy.

The role demands huge outpourings of sound , which Rysanek supplied, nearly always handsomely.Now and then she drove her voice past its best liits with harm to both texture and intonation. The program listed a substitute dancer for the Dance of the Seven Veils, which is the bait with which Salome forces Herod to give her the head of the Baptist. But Rysanek decided to do her own dancing.It was a poor thing. Herod should have welshed on the deal, but he had, as Salome reminded him, sworn an oath.

Adam, as magnificent as in his Pizarro the previous evening, sang and acted with unstinting splendor.

In Hans Beirer's Herod were all the frenzied lust and depraved touches for a memorable portrait, while Ruth Hesse sang his wife, the Herodias reviled by the Baptist, in a voice that was equaled for luxuriance by her opulent appearance.

Rohangiz Yachmi was a fine page, but the lovely role of Narraboth needs a more lyrical sustenance the Josef Hopferweiser provided. The small roles of the Jews and Cappadocians were extremely well sung and acted.

Jurgen Rose's massive set was gorgeous, against which Boleslaw Barlog's stage direction added every desired accent. The lighting, however, was strangely unchanging and routine.