Live opera as a mass entertainment form reached Washington shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday. It happened on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House, after the curtain rose on a cold Parisian garret in the 1840s.

The painter Marcello (baritone Gino Quilico) stepped back from his easel, pointed his paintbrush at the canvas and sang in tones of chilled exasperation: "Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce e assidera." On a screen above the proscenium, his words appeared in English: "Painting the 'Red Sea' chills me to the bone."

The Washington Opera was opening its 1984-85 season with the top hit in its repertoire -- a production of "La Bohe me" that won universal applause when it was first seen three years ago. But this time it was different: The Washington Opera was using surtitles, a technique that was pioneered in this country last year by the New York City Opera and is rapidly spreading to other companies. For the first time, all 2,500 members of the audience knew in detail what was being said and done in that Parisian garret.

The poet Rodolfo (tenor Jerry Hadley) dreamily contemplated the smoke rising from the chimneys of Paris while his own stove lay cold and empty; then he burned the manuscript of his play, one act at a time, for momentary warmth. The philosopher Colline (bass Eric Halfvarson) complained that he could not pawn his books on Christmas Eve. The musician Schaunard (baritone Allan Glassman) came in with money earned from an Englishman who hoped that music would kill his neighbor's parrot -- and because the words were flashed on a screen, it was obvious that Glassman was singing some of his Italian lines with an English accent.

Everything was familiar in this revived "Bohe me" -- including the splendid scenery by Zack Brown, the inspired stage direction of Gian Carlo Menotti and the sensitive conducting of John Mauceri -- but everything was new. The audience laughed during the first half-hour as American audiences never laugh at "Bohe me"; everyone knows, after all, that it is a tragic opera about artists starving in a cold garret and a young woman dying of tuberculosis. Those who have studied the libretto know, in an abstract sort of way, about the youthful high spirits that pervade the opera -- the blackmailing of the landlord Benoit, the jokes about how Rodolfo's play sparkles in the stove, the delicate balance of wit and eroticism in Act 2, the mock duel and improvised dance routine just before the tragic final scene. But this knowledge does not usually make American audiences laugh out loud.

Comedy, provoking an audible reaction, gives the best index of how an audience is affected by the use of surtitles; nobody makes a noise while learning the subtle details of Mimi's fragile, poetic soul. As registered by the level of laughter at appropriate moments, the titles were a smashing success on opening night.

Written by the company's artistic director Francis Rizzo (who is not sure whether he approves of the idea), the surtitles for this "Bohe me" take small liberties with the letter of the Italian text, simplify it slightly for quick reading, and sometimes change an image or idiom to one that is easier to grasp in English. "Si da il mio dramma al fuoco," for example, becomes not "My drama is being given to the fire" but "My play is being given a roasting" -- not a literal translation but something better: exactly what Rodolfo would have said if he were joking with his friends in English. The spirit and flavor of the original are caught precisely and the audience is told what is going on.

Besides the titles, there are two new elements in this revived "Bohe me," both excellent. Gino Quilico, the son of baritone Louis Quilico, has an outstanding voice, which he uses intelligently, and a striking stage presence. He may be at the beginning of a career as significant as his father's.

Franc,ois Loup, in the two small comic roles of Benoit and Alcindoro, was a familiar figure in an unfamiliar role. The comic talent that has endeared him to Washington in recent seasons was evident again, superbly controlled and integrated into the total production. He is fully capable of stealing any scene in which he appears, and the fact that he did not do so is an index of his artistic stature.

In general, the male performers had more impact than the women in this performance. Hadley, as Rodolfo, sang with excellent tone and intense emotional comunication. He is not an outstanding actor but more than passable, and he shifted from comedy to pathos with easy grace. Sheri Greenawald, who was an outstanding Mimi three years ago, had a few small vocal problems at the beginning of Saturday night's performance but soon straightened them out and was singing splendidly by the end of Act 1. Janice Hall, as Musetta, was musically exquisite and dramatically precise in every gesture, funny and sexy as the changing moods of the opera required. But she could have been more vivid; she did not erase memories of the flamboyant performance in Act 2 given by Myra Merritt with the Metropolitan Opera on the same stage earlier this year.

This may have been a matter of the production's style rather than the singer's temperament. The Washington Opera's production, compared with the Met's, is much more of an ensemble effort, tightly integrated and careful to avoid individualistic display by "stars." The other kind of performance makes audiences applaud but undermines the structure, focus and impact of the opera as a whole. This "Bohe me" is Puccini's, not the singers'. It works as a total theatrical experience, and it encompasses the opera's wide range of feelings in a powerful, unified, detailed but uncluttered statement.

Credit for the full impact of this production should be shared evenly between Mauceri, who shaped the musical performance expertly, and Menotti, who gave it a powerful visual and theatrical dimension.