The Washington Civic Opera is the capital's oldest opera company, and its production of "Madama Butterfly" Saturday evening showed it once again to be one of our nicest treasures. Puccini's masterpiece was performed under the cloud of recent budget cutbacks that have left the company almost penniless, yet the Civic Opera's spirit and the music's true worth shone through in triumph.

Richard Weilenmann conducted the fine ensemble with sensitive firmness, and from the opening scene there were musical splendors. Richard Schuler's Pinkerton was typical of the kind of youthful surprises that the Civic Opera has been offering since 1954. His was a handsome, sly hero, as full of life as he was of treachery. His tenor was unusually veiled in the middle, yet quite free in the upper reaches where the voice bloomed with a gentle lyric timbre; a tendency to cover the voice in downward passages only added distinction to his phrasing, and his dead-on pitch accuracy would have been more noticeable had it not been typical of the entire cast. This was a well-prepared "Butterfly."

In the title role soprano Gayna Sauler was often quite touching. Looking like a short Monserrat Caballe', she did not seem a natural Cio-Cio-San at her entrance. But she carried herself with considerable charm, and her voice's fragile quality created an aura of tenderness that captivated from the Act One duet through the rest of the night. Roger Saylor's Sharpless was ridden with vibrato yet imbued with nobility. Ronald Emery's Goro was uncannily reminiscent in voice and presence of the work of John Reed, adding to the incidental Savoyard flavor of the colorful sets. And the other principals and chorus displayed vigor and sincerity. If balancing the orchestra remained a heroic endeavor given the raised pit, Weilenmann usually found the best solutions and Puccini's textures were well served.

In all, it was a sad and beautiful evening. Beautiful for all the aforementioned reasons. Sad, because the Washington Civic Opera is for the first time threatened with extinction. By international standards, our government's support of the arts has been obscenely meager; currently it is only getting worse, forcing the company to charge admission for the first time in its history. This company's loss of subsidy is particularly distressing to a Washingtonian, with memories of such thrilling free performances as the Washington premiere of Dvorak's "Rusalka," of Dolores Jones' memorable Tosca, of last year's "La Traviata." Most of all, there are the memories of the most cosmopolitan, best integrated audiences in town. The Washington Civic Opera has been truly the people's opera company, and I hope the people will not lose it.