It has not been an easy year for Handel. The season has witnessed a Handel oratorio stretched to the operatic stage, as well as the annual "Messiah" atrocities. And now the Fifth Handel Festival at Kennedy Center opened Saturday night with a Handel opera given as an oratorio, and with a game of musical chairs on stage as Huguette Tourangeau canceled, Fredda Rakusin filled in the title role on short notice, and Rose Taylor sang Rakusin's role. Bononcini must be smiling in heaven. Actually, although Saturday night's three hours did seem longer than "Parsifal," there was much to like in the performance.

It was brave of Rose Taylor to sing the role of Polinesso on such short notice, and her alto sound reached heroic dimensions in the final "Dover, giustizia." Although Grayson Hurst's voice is much too small for the concert hall, his Lurcanio showed the closest thing to a trill heard the whole evening. Morley meredith, not at his best, clothed the King of Scotland with vocal textures closer to Shetland than to ermine. As his daughter Ginevra, Lorna Haywood was ravishing.

Fredda Rakusin was admirable as Ariodante. Although her command of the role is far from complete, her empathy with Handel's intentions was obvious from the poignant "Scherza infida," sung evenly, simply and quite impressively. Elsewhere she aspirated in the Coloratura passages, and her pyramid of a mezzo tended to narrow at the op.

As expected, June Anderson was gorgeous as Dalinda. The dramatic immediacy of her vocal production even allowed her to add playfully some Monteverdian staccatos to the middle section of "Il primo ardor," only to launch into what was a model of Handlelian fervor. Anderson is a born bel canto singer.

The cutting of scenes and ballets was defensible, the multilations within arias unforgivable. Stephen Simon's conducting, while allowing the more strong-willed singers to have their way was boring. The orchestral playing was not up to the standards of previous festivals. The Handel Festival Chorus, on the other hand, was impressive.