When the curtain rises on "Proust -- Les Intermittences du Coeur"--the Roland Petit opus given its first Washington performance last night at the Kennedy Center by the Ballet National de Marseille--the stage image strikes not only the retina but the gut, and you know at once you're in the presence of creative imagination of a very high order.

What one sees is a turn-of-the-century Parisian salon; the frozen figures of brittle, exquisitely coiffed ladies and blank-faced men in formal attire stare unblinkingly outward like waxworks; they are flanked by huge mirrors, draped portals, and an ebony grand piano. It's a tableau vivant of rampant decadence, a lethal portrait of a society on the brink of disintegration. As the figures ever so slowly begin to move, to saunter and whisper, while one of them lip-synchs a romantic ballad by Reynaldo Hahn, one senses in the hauteur and indolence of their movement the whole style and temper of an age.

Though it has its ups and downs, the 90-minute ballet, premiered in 1974 in Monte Carlo and seen in New York three years ago, very nearly sustains this pitch of inspiration throughout its 13 scenes. It's the third and last program the Petit troupe will present here, and in many ways the most impressive. The company's impact, however, has proven to be cumulative in effect.

The opening "Notre Dame de Paris," a week ago, put melodrama and spectacle in the foreground. The subsequent mixed bill, and especially the haunting "L'Arlesienne," showed us Petit's power of dance characterization, and his considerable choreographic flair. "Proust" combines the strongest features of both prior programs with an even more pronounced originality of concept and design. Looking back on all three, one concludes that this body of work, the company performing it, and, by extension, Petit himself, are quite extraordinary. The level of the dancing alone has been sufficient to oblige us to rank the Marseille troupe with the finest classical companies anywhere else in today's world, and in guest artist Patrick Dupond and company principal Jean-Charles Gil we've been privileged to witness two unfamiliar, youthful male artists of the loftiest caliber.

Never having made it through the "Remembrance of Things Past," the Proust masterwork on which the ballet is based, I'm in no position to gauge how it reflects, or fails to reflect, the novel. On the other hand, Petit has said he wished his version to be independent of such foreknowledge--it's a ballet, as he puts it, "of perfumes, of flavors"--and it's a lucky thing. The maddening synopsis in the printed program takes a half hour to read, is hopelessly confusing (it's almost impossible to figure out who's dancing what characters and when), and corresponds only erratically to the stage action. The best advice is to put it aside and watch the ballet as a panorama of poetically linked but diverse little scenes and dramas, all wrapped around the pervasive themes of innocence and evil, love (in all its varieties) and hate, life and death.

It isn't until the penultimate scene that Dupond makes his entrance as Saint-Loup, a kind of modern Adonis who is seduced and corrupted by the impetuous Morel (Gil), but when he does he gathers up the whole force of the ballet. Dupond not only has charisma to burn and virtuosity to match, but also, flaming through his eyes, a depth of belief that is very rare on the ballet stage, and Gil, with his firebrand attack and stunning technique, isn't far behind.

Many others shine, including the ravishing Dominique Khalfouni (a lighting "gel" plummeted to the stage during one of her scenes; no one was hurt), Denys Ganio, Gerard Taillade, Pascale Leroy, Luigi Bonino, Florence Faure, Ines Baroux, Pascale Doye and Solange Maillard, in a range of portrayals amply enhanced by Petit's gift for dramatic nuance. In the end, the scene returns to the opening salon for a grotesquely mechanical danse macabre that echoes both Balanchine's "La Valse" and Jooss' "Green Table," but remains kinkily, inimitably, Petit.

The music for all this is a pastiche drawn from composers ranging from Beethoven and Wagner to Franck, Debussy and Saint-Saens; unaccountably, it works. The exceptionally effective sets and costumes are by Rene Allio and Christine Laurent. "Proust" will be repeated tonight, Friday evening and Saturday afternoon--don't blame me if you miss it.