One of the things Franz Lehar's "Merry Widow" is about (though it is primarily about some of the world's greatest melodies) is Keeping Up Appearances. Pontevedro, a small, imaginary principality in Central Europe, is on the brink of bankruptcy, but its ambassador in Paris continues to entertain lavishly, hoping to beguile the multimillionaire widow into saving its economy.

This was a curiously appropriate choice for the season's opening production of the Washington Civic Opera last weekend in the Lisner Auditorium. Like Pontevedro, this small, local company (the "poor man's opera" for Washington) has been dancing on the brink of bankruptcy, seems to be coming back from that brink with a strong, new support organization and would undoubtedly like to attract the benevolence of a millionaire or two. And like Pontevedro, it gave a sort of party in its two performances of "The Merry Widow" -- three parties, actually; one in each of the three acts.

Watching this production, one could hardly have guessed that the Civic Opera is still struggling for its life. The atmosphere created by stage director Andrew Wilk was lighthearted, sometimes bordering on slapstick. The scenery and costumes, including a fine array of Pontevedrian military and peasant garb, were festive, almost lavish, with real chandeliers in the first act and a reasonable facsimile of Maxim's nightclub in the third: dancing girls galore, and a lusty-voiced chorus, decked out in white ties and evening gowns. It was a fine example of grace under pressure.

Both of the principal singers, soprano Janet Pranschke and tenor Michael Harrison, produced a few uncomfortable notes in yesterday's performance, particularly in Act I before the balance between voices and orchestra had been settled by conductor Richard Weilenmann. But these were at worst small problems and soon solved. Pranschke's "Vilja Song" was exquisite and Harrison sang the famous waltz melody beautifully. In the supporting roles, Paul Spencer Adkins was outstanding as Rosillon and Virginia Boomer as Valencienne. Comic roles were ably handled by Joseph Myering (the ambassador) and James Nadeaux (Njegus), and the show-stopping numbers ("Girls, Girls, Girls" and the Grisettes' song and dance) did in fact stop the show.