Nearly everyone involved in the Summer Opera Theatre's "La Traviata," which had the first of six performances last night in Catholic University's Hartke Theatre, was performing this opera for the first time.

The list of neophytes includes 25-year-old conductor Michael Morgan, soprano Myra Merritt in the role of Violetta, and tenor Philip Bologna as Alfredo. If baritone Alan Baker, the only principal who is not a Washingtonian, has sung the role of Germont before, he showed little sign of it on opening night. But in spite of inexperience--perhaps partly because of it--this is a "Traviata" with great musical freshness and strong dramatic impact.

It received substantial, well-earned applause last night, and it should continue to grow in the remaining performances. The Summer Opera Theatre, a small, low-budget company in its fifth season, devotes all its resources to a single production each year. It also sets a high standard locally for regional operatic production. Above all, it shows keen awareness of the role of such companies--building audiences and providing young local musicians (singers and conductor) an opportunity to gain experience at a fully professional level. This "Traviata" could easily be recommended because it is such a worthy project. It is a great pleasure to recomend it, instead, because it is so thoroughly enjoyable.

Last night, it was dominated by Merritt, who will sing Violetta in three of the five remaining performances. Last seen here as Musetta in the Metropolitan Opera's stunning "La Bohe me," she played Violetta's first scene--the libertine at a party--with a small trace of the lusty exuberance she brought to that role.

From this flashy beginning, she gradually deepened the interpretation, starting with "Ah, fors' e lui" and continuing through the scenes of renunciation and humiliation that led up to a superbly effective and beautifully staged death scene. Merritt's coloratura singing was spectacular in "Sempre libera," but her talents as an actress are as fine-tuned as her voice, and she makes the two strengths work together with the expertise of a thorough professional who also enjoys every moment of what she is doing.

Vocally, she began impressively and gained strength throughout the evening, subtly varying the style, tone, pace and accentuation of her music, the color of her voice and the emotional weight of the words. She found a worthy collaborator in tenor Bologna, a singer of considerably less experience but great potential. The deepening emotional course of the opera could easily be traced in their duets, from the drinking song in Act I to "Parigi, o cara" in Act III.

Bologna is gradually mastering his art in its finest details with a conscientious dedication that one does not always find in tenors who have such splendid natural gifts. It is easy for these singers (so rare and in such demand) to get away with less than the best--to substitute a golden tone, a few ringing high notes and a bit of strutting for the hard work of blending musical and dramatic values. Bologna deserves special praise not so much for his superb tone (which is genetic in origin) but, for example, for his clarity of diction and his convincing stage presence. Every syllable in such arias as "Un di felice" and "De' miei bollenti spiriti" came through as clear as a bell--an event much less common than it should be on our operatic stages.

Michael Morgan is still a very young conductor, and his Verdi will certainly have more depth in 10 or 20 years than it has today, but his first performance of "Traviata" shows considerable expertise as well as great promise. He paced the opera thoughtfully, once or twice slowing it almost to the absolute limit but generally maintaining a straightforward approach, highly flexible and thoroughly considerate of the singers.

Baker, as Germont, seemed rather stiff on opening night, not only in his acting but also in his singing, which did not reach a really satisfactory legato quality until Act III--unfortunately after "Di Provenza il mar." His is a fine voice, however, and one capable of considerable dramatic inflection.

The staging by John Lehmeyer was highly effective, from the boisterous party scenes to the death scene, which was put in a hospital setting. During the Act I prelude, taking his cues from the music, he combined both scenes, showing Violetta on her deathbed as the curtain rose and fading into the opening party scene with an almost cinematic smoothness and some surrealistic symbolic gestures.

The chorus took a moment or two to warm up at the beginning, but then performed with both musical and dramatic effectiveness.

There will be repeat performances July 15, 17, 20, 22 and 24.