The Washington Opera's "Tosca" has one serious problem: most of the women in the audience came out for the second intermission loving the villain. Scarpia is a cold, sadistic beast who makes lecherous advances to the soprano while her lover, the tenor, is being tortured in the next room; if he compares favorably with Heinrich Himmler or Genghis Khan, it is by a close margin. But he was sung and acted so beautifully by Charles Long (who looks like a Don Giovanni) that one couldn't help feeling a twinge, seeing the bloodstains lavishly spread over his costume, when he came out at the curtain call for his well-earned applause.

Long, whose career is just reaching the international level, was a relatively small star flanked by two big stars: Shirley Verrett and Carlo Bergonzi. But he held his own in this distinguished company last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. It may have been easier because Bergonzi does not cut a dashing figure and had some moments of vocal roughness -- reportedly aggravated by a cold. But Bergonzi has been a great singer for a long time and knows to the smallest nuance how the role of Cavaradossi should be sung; his vocal style was superb, and so were all but a handful of the notes he sang.

Whatever the mere males may do, "Tosca" stands or falls on its title role, and this "Tosca" stands tall and proud with Verrett in that role. She is better as a singer than as an actress, but that leaves room for some very powerful acting. She was properly petulant in Act I, ridden with anxiety for most of the deliciously agonizing Act II, and then there was a swift sequence of moods: decisive as she plunged her dagger into the villain shouting, "Muori, muori, muori!"; anxious again as she searched for the precious safe-conduct; revolted as she took the vital document from Scarpia's lifeless hand; splendidly scornful, looking down at the corpse before whom "all Rome trembled," and totally businesslike as she straightened out the room to ward off the suspicions of anyone who might glance in.

The act finished with a new bit of business: instead of decking out the corpse with candles and a crucifix in the time-honored style, Verrett took one of his arms and calmly dragged him a few feet to a spot where he could not be seen from the doorway. This lacks some symbolic and psychological overtones of the usual gesture and may simplify the character a bit. But it fits in with the sequence of strong feelings that it climaxes, and it is a highly dramatic way to bring down the curtain -- almost as dramatic as the leap to her death that ends Act III.

Verrett handled that with just the right mixture of scorn and desperation -- but, of course, the key question about her performance is how she sang "Vissi d'arte." The answer is that she sang it splendidly, standing by a window and looking out at the Eternal City, while Scarpia sat across the enormous room, coolly ignoring her. Even with a high quotient of vibrato in some passages and microscopic signs of strain in a few high notes, the aria was delivered with a polished style and beauty of tone that made one forget it is really an interruption of some very intense dramatic action.

This "Tosca" rounds out the cycle of grand operas that will be playing in the Opera House for the rest of November, and it is the strongest (or, if you prefer, the least problematic) production of the three -- not quite at the level of last year's magnificent "La Bohe me," but well-cast, beautifully paced and acted with a skill that makes its most melodramatic moments emotionally believable. A large share of the credit must go to conductor John Mauceri, whose tempos, dynamics and firm sense of ensemble provided unfailing guidance and support to the voices. Puccini uses the orchestra with considerable skill in "Tosca" to accent and comment on the drama, and that skill could be fully appreciated in last night's performance.

Among the secondary roles, Leonard Eagleson and Marvin Finnley gave fine performances as Scarpia's police-state henchmen, Spoletta and Sciarrone. Francois Loup, in Act I's cameo role of the Sacristan, showed again the very special comic talent that he displayed last season (and will display again, happily, this season) in the title role of Offenbach's "Monsieur Choufleuri." All of the singers' talents (except, perhaps, Jeffrey Wells in the highly melodramatic role of Angelotti) were clearly enhanced by the stage direction of Michael Rennison.

The chorus sang with its usual polish during its brief appearance in Act I and added considerably to the visual interest of the production. The sets (from the Seattle Opera Association) were designed by Ercole Sormani, who has obviously spent considerable time in Italy with his eyes wide open. The set for Act II, Scarpia's apartment (with adjoining torture chamber), was merely a good interior set, though it had some nice touches -- a chess set with which Scarpia plays during some tense moments and which he overturns during his death scene, leaving Tosca the small but crucial job of setting it up again while the orchestra expresses its opinion of what has been going on.

The church interior in Act I had a splendid depth of precise detail, and the Castel Sant'Angelo in Act III -- with stone ramparts, a statue of an angel drawing a sword and a papal coat of arms in bas relief on a wall -- was very much like being there. It was enhanced by a splendid background -- a night sky gradually turning to morning, with just the tip of the dome of Saint Peter's showing against the clouds. And it will be enhanced even more when the cues for lighting changes are refined for later performances.

For its last four productions, the Washington Opera will be moving upstairs to the more intimate environment of the Terrace Theater.