The Sixth Annual Handel Festival opened at the Kennedy Center Saturday night with "Acis and Galatea." It is a delicate score of many faces, looking back to Purcell's masques as well as ahead to Handel's English oratorios. With a libretto by John Gay after Ovid, this fairy tale of a sea nymph's love for a doomed shepherd inspired Handel to create some of his loveliest music. A competent performance is often enough to bring this score to life, and that is just what it received.

Norman Scribner's Handel Festival Chorus was again the evening's finest treasure. The opening "Oh, the pleasure of the plains!" showed a thoroughly prepared ensemble ready to meet any Handelian demand with triumphant smiles. Its "Wretched lovers" painted a world far from realism yet immediate and poignant, with a wondrous, humorous shift on the staccato announcement of the coming of Polyphemus, the monster.

In the small role of Damon, William McDonald refused to push his tiny voice to fill out the hall. Instead, he commanded his audience to listen carefully, and the rewards justified the effort. His diction, and his alone, matched that of the chorus, and his style of singing coincided with Handel's wishes.

As for the three principals, their performances were often convincing enough to make one put aside high standards and try to enjoy what there was. Though charming, Henry Price was not at his best as Acis. There was a tightness on top with an alarming carelessness of intonation in fast passages that he has not shown before and should not show again.

Lorna Haywood was a sweet Galatea, with a voice shaped like a pencil: focused to a point and capable of sketching fine lines in a single color. Ezio Flagello was a bland Polyphemus. Kathleen Golding and Carl Hane were impeccable on the oboe and recorder. Stephen Simon conducted.