The National Symphony Orchestra played beautifully under Lorin Maazel last night in a benefit concert for its musicians' pension fund. With works of Verdi, Bellini, Rossini, Puccini and Dvora'k, the maestro's temperament was well suited to most of the music in the program. And the orchestra's responsiveness to Maazel's every wish showed a model ensemble in top form. The evening was also the NSO debut of soprano Shirley Verrett, a notable event in itself.

Verrett's artistry was most evident in three scenes from operas by Verdi. "Ecco l'orrido campo" from "Un ballo in maschera" began with stormy string playing which more than suggested the dark gallows field where Verdi's Amelia has gone in desperation. Verrett's a capella entrance was impressive, and the occasionally veiled voice commanded the music with sensuous strength.

More importantly, the soprano knew how to make a dramatic whole of the scene -- something which eludes many better equipped singers. The same was true for "Morro, ma prima in grazia," which also offered John Martin's gorgeous solo cello.

"Casta diva" from Bellini's "Norma" was less successful. Once upon a time there was a brilliant mezzo soprano called Shirley Verrett; now there is a less distinctive soprano by the same name. They are not the same singer, and Bellini's music exposed what the voice has lost on its way up. The sound is still sensuous, but Verrett cannot sing pianissimo; she cannot produce a mesa di voce; her inadequate support made her divide Bellini's phrases beyond delicacy. The most Verrett could do was display her fine Verdi style to excellent dramatic effect. Neither her singing nor Maazel's conducting had anything to do with Bellini.