"The Birth of Opera" is the almost accurate title of an ambitious project that begins tonight and continues June 14 and 21 on Channel 26 at 8 and simulcast on WETA-FM: a complete cycle of the three surviving operas of Claudio Monteverdi. Opera, as a continuous tradition of composition and performance, was actually born in 1600, seven years before Monteverdi composed his "Orpheus," the first opera in the current series and the one that will be shown tonight. But "The Birth of Opera" sounds more interesting than "The Infancy of Opera," and the operas in this trilogy are the earliest in the current repertoire.

What will actually be shown in these three productions is the growth of opera from a rather stiff and awkward beginning (theatrically, if not musically) into a full-grown, full-blooded dramatic medium, capable of dealing with the whole spectrum of human passions and using musical accents that range from stark tragedy to low comedy. The process took a mere 35 years, beginning in 1607 when Monteverdi was 40 and already a highly skilled composer of madrigals and religious music.

The composer's progress may be traced in terms of the kind of characters he wrote about. Compared with "The Return of Ulysses" (1641) and "The Coronation of Poppea" (1642), "Orpheus" is relatively lacking in human interest and stage action. In style it aspires to be something like an ancient Greek tragedy and actually manages to be a sort of stage oratorio on a pagan subject.

Presenting these operas in chronological order, PBS is starting off with the weakest of the three--the one whose interest relates more to its important place in music history than to its aptness for a television production. "Ulysses" and "Poppea" both have a lot of stage action, including love scenes and fighting. "Orpheus" is an opera about the power of music, and its attractions tend to be more musical than visual.

It is worth watching tonight for several reasons. The music is beautiful, raising the dialogue to a controlled power beyond the reach of spoken words. Seen in conjunction with "Ulysses" and "Poppea," it shows how rapidly the art of opera grew to its full power from slightly awkward beginnings.

The story of Orpheus and Euridice was a favorite of composers from the Renaissance until the mid-19th century when Offenbach laughed the myth off the stage with his hilarious "Orpheus in the Underworld." Its hero is a sort of demigod and a musician of such power that his music could tame wild animals. When his newly wed bride, Euridice, dies, Orpheus goes off to Hades and charms Pluto, the stern ruler of the nether regions, with his music--so much so that Pluto agrees to allow Euridice to return to the world of the living under one condition: Orpheus must lead her out of Hades without looking back to see whether she is following. Orpheus breaks this rule and loses her for the second time--this time, forever. In Monteverdi's version, the god Apollo intervenes to comfort his grief and makes him a constellation in the heavens--an ancient variation on the modern line, "Let me make you a star."

In staging this production for the Zurich Opera House and adapting it for television, Ponnelle ran into serious challenges at the beginning, where everything is sweetness and light, with nothing much happening except for the wedding of Orpheus and Euridice amid general (and somewhat hyperactive) rejoicing. In act two, he finds a lot more visual interest in Hell, with some striking vignettes of lost souls being ferried across the Styx by the boatman Charon. Class distinctions in his conception of Hell are conveyed by color: Ordinary inhabitants are clad in drab black and white, while the rulers of the place, Pluto and his wife, Proserpina, are decked out in the colorful costumes of the Renaissance nobility.

There are no such problems in the musical performance. Harnoncourt is a specialist in music of this vintage; he has been polishing his Monteverdi interpretations for years, and they are now at a very high level. His cast is excellent, visually and vocally. In one role, that of Euridice, this took two performers. Dietlinde Turban, who handles the acting, looks like a goddess by Botticelli--or the kind of woman a man would try to rescue even from Hell. Rachel Yakar supplies a voice to match this visual image.

Philippe Huttenlocher, in the role of Orpheus, uses a fine tenor voice with an acute awareness of Monteverdian style. The deep-voiced Hans Franzen and Werner Groschel perform stalwartly in the roles of Charon and Pluto. A singer to watch in this performance is Trudeliese Schmidt. In "Orpheus," she has only the relatively small, allegorical roles of Hope and Music, but next week she will do some spectacular work as Penelope, the wife of Ulysses.