Last year at the Arena Stage, Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" had a long, successful run as a Broadway-style musical. Tonight in Baltimore's Lyric Opera House, it opened a run of five performances as an opera, featuring the operatic debut of actress Jean Stapleton. The show has had an ambiguous existence since its origin in 1956. It works fairly well in either category, but leaves something to be desired no matter how it's done.

The difference rests largely on two points -- the orchestration and the quality of the voices. The Baltimore "Candide" is not staged with the dazzling technical ingenuity of the Arena production, and on opening night the fine details of timing and stage business had not yet acquired their final polish.

But the orchestra, conducted by George Manahan, had a rich, well-disciplined sound and the singing was enormously better than what we heard in Washington last year. John Lehmeyer's stage direction was imaginative. It frequently depended on cuteness for its effects but that may be necessary in a show that gives small singing roles to a lion and a pair of sheep. The scenery is minimal and fairly abstract: two large triangles and a luminous circle that serve as a German castle, a ship at sea and a dozen other locales. The production leans heavily toward Broadway in its use of amplification for the voices -- a process that showed some technical problems tonight.

As far as its form and content are concerned, "Candide" sounds like a show that started out with operatic ambitions but finally settled for a Broadway level of achievement.

The chief saving grace of the Baltimore production is the quality of the voices, particularly John Reardon, whose career spans Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera and who acts as well as he sings. As Candide, Gran Wilson has a light tenor voice that would go well in Bel Canto roles but also has a touch of Broadway style. Cecily Nall as Cunegonde and Jody Rapport as Paquette were excellent. Vocally, these singers outshone Stapleton, who was making her operatic debut in the role of the Old Lady with many sad tales to tell. It is hard to imagine that such a seasoned professional actress could have opening night jitters, but she may have had some for the beginning of her operatic career. Her singing was considerably better in Act II than in Act I; her comic acting was up to her usual high standard.