Anne Merlette Petrignani, wife of the new ambassador of Italy, was hostess last night for a Traviata-type feast (well, sort of) for the sparkling singers of the Washington Cathedral Choral Society following their 40th anniversary program in the cathedral. (The ambassador missed his own party, having flown to Anchorage to meet the president of Italy.)

Rossini was of course Italian and his "Petite Messe Solennelle" was the choral offering. Anne Petrignani invited guests for 6:30 and, since many arrived early, she was caught trying to escape to change her shoes. The choristers sang the embassy's praises for the grand spread, and one of the singers apparently paid a particularly gallant compliment to the hostess' beauty.

"I don't hear that so much anymore," she said. "In Italy, when I was younger. But you know Italian men. So generous. 'Bella,' they call out when a girl goes by. Once I heard a man call 'Bella' to me and I glanced back to see what elegant fellow had been attracted. He was quite crushed beneath a whole side of beef on his shoulders, but he had peered back under his arm and seen me."

A greater compliment than usual, if you think of it. Anybody can holler Bella sitting at ease in a cafe', but to sing out to a lady with a half-ton cow on your shoulder, you really have to have your heart in it.

Paul Callaway, for decades a great leader of capital music, was up to here in compliments near the strawberry and whipped cream cake; Ramona Forbes, who has sung in 180 choral concerts over 40 years, was there with her husband, Charles, who was present in 1907 when the cathedral cornerstone was laid, and who still ushers at the north door on Sundays.

The four soloists excitedly replenished the vital juices in between compliments. Stanley Cornett, the tenor, fended off praise with the confession that when he hears a tape of himself he goes into a deep funk thinking how much more glorious it might have been.

"Well, you're going to have to stop that. Analysis from the viewpoint of total perfection will kill anybody who performs in public," he was reminded.

"Can't help it. My father is a physicist, my brother's an astronomer. Whole family is into science and analytical thought. You don't know what it's like to be an artist in that bunch."

"They're lucky," someone said. "You do them worlds of good."