Like his ubiquitously popular "Amahl and the Night Visitors," Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore" is an opera accessible for its musically and thematically unorthodox liberties, as well for a score designed to be mimed throughout. This madrigal-fable was chosen by a newly formed Washington dance company, the Center Dance Ensemble, for its first major production, given at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington last night. Musikanten, a chorus and chamber ensemble under the direction of Kerry Krebill, joined the dancers in this work.

This fabulist opera is a particularly appropriate vehicle for this company, whose avowed purposes include dancing in the service of humanistic concerns and in fusing the theater arts. It is also appropriate since it has D.C. associations: Commissioned in 1956 by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress, "The Unicorn" premiered at the Coolidge Auditorium 26 years ago to the day.

The JCC version, under the direction of Frances Cohen Smith, also mirrors the original John Butler production for Ballet Society in its show-stealing by a secondary character, the Countess. Janet Reed's Countess apparently so defined the Ballet Society production that it was withdrawn from the repertory when she left the company. In last night's presentation, the acquisitive witchery and puckish antics of Susanna Poulos' Countess also overwhelmed the other characters. To some extent, this is dictated by a score whose most delightful ironies and witticisms are lavished on her.

While appropriately soulful and effectively danced, Geoffrey Harrison's Poet pales in interest before the Countess. The three titular creatures are also wonderfully costumed -- particularly the Gorgon cum Cowardly Lion -- but ineffectively differentiated in movement terms. To some extent, this is a danger inherent in miming sung action: strong mime can be most distracting or simply baffling. However, most effective choreography was provided for the striking tableaux and keening of the Poet's death processional.

The program will be repeated tomorrow at 8 and Sunday at 2.