What is a 1929 Mercedes roadster doing in the Washington Opera's new production of "L'Italiana in Algeri" -- a story that used to be about a rescue from the Barbary Pirates around 1800? Fitting it into a trend; that's what.

Like many recent opera productions, the story has been moved up to a time long after the composer was lying (possibly rolling over) in his grave. It works at least as well as other updatings of old operas: a "Rigoletto" that features Prohibition-era mobsters rather than Renaissance noblemen; a "Carmen" set in the Spanish Civil War; a "Tales of Hoffmann" in the Weimar Republic; a "Madame Butterfly" that ends with the atom-bombing of Nagasaki.

Unlike those other operas, "L'Italiana" is nothing but comedy -- pure fluff and brilliant music. The Mercedes, a bicycle, a copy of Le Monde being read by a member of the chorus, a croquet mallet appropriated as a weapon and other small details make it funnier.

Last night in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, the difference was established even before a single note was heard. A stately court attendant of Mustafa, Bey of Algiers, strode onstage bearing a 78-rpm record, put it down on a wind-up phonograph, turned the crank a few times and beat time with a cigarette to the overture suddenly swelling up from the pit. Members of the chorus wandered in slowly and pantomimed amazement at this high-tech addition to the palace furniture.

With one stroke, Gioacchino Rossini's creaky, melodious old opera has all the cliche's shaken out of it. It is moved up in time two centuries, and for modern audiences the shift helps to clarify its two themes: feminism and culture shock.

This is an opera about a leader of the Third World who is eager to be Europeanized -- first of all by acquiring an Italian woman. Like all of Rossini's most popular operas, it is also about a woman who is smarter than the men around her. Both of these themes fit comfortably into a 1920s atmosphere. "Here, women are born only to suffer," sings the chorus in the opening number. But not when the woman is Isabella, a fiery Italian who is shipwrecked with a crowd of companions and captured by men who rush on the scene shouting "What loot! So many slaves! Any pretty girls?" She is more than a match for them, with or without scimitars.

"Oh che donna e mai costei!" ("Oh, what a woman she is!") sing the three male principals in harmony, watching her put on her makeup (her armor, really) in Act 2. After seeing mezzo-soprano Mimi Lerner in the role, one can only echo the sentiment. Her voice is light and graceful throughout its wide range, powerful at climactic moments, beautifully rounded in tone and used with an awesome ease even for Rossini's most acrobatic leaps.

But the voice is only part of it; she has a magnetic, regal, self-possessed stage presence, an electric charge in the smallest gestures, that makes it easy to believe when she tames Mustafa, "the scourge of women." Or when (reversing the usual damsel-in-distress stereotype) she rescues the tenor and the entire male chorus. "The Italian woman is free and clever; she knows a lot more than all the others," according to the opera's libretto. Lerner justifies the description.

As Mustafa, Franc,ois Loup is a perfect foil for her. A favorite performer with the Washington Opera throughout the 1980s, he has made his mark until now in small roles. Mustafa's music gives him a rare chance to display his voice in bel canto melody, and a fine, well-controlled voice it is. But his acting talent -- the perennial basis of his appeal -- is also fully exercised. The transformation of Mustafa from the imperious tyrant of Act 1 to the moonstruck simpleton of Act 2 is a virtuoso performance. It reaches its climax in an epic scene when he attacks the problem of eating spaghetti (the flowing robes of a desert chieftain abandoned for white tie and tails) to show how up-to-date and European he has become. It is worthy of Charlie Chaplin.

John Fiorito, another perennial favorite in relatively small roles, has never given a performance in Washington that was less than exemplary. He brings unusual depth and nuance, vocally and dramatically, to the role of Taddeo. Sheryl Woods, who is almost the whole show in "The Telephone," takes the smaller role of Elvira in this production and handles it with polish. Tenor George Livings sings and acts acceptably. Judith Christin has moments of fine comedy, shared with Stephen Dupont -- an outstanding performer in the secondary role of Haly, the chief of the palace guards.

One of the qualities evident in this production is the performers' enjoyment of what they are doing. It is particularly noticeable in the members of the chorus, who are used with skill by stage director Leon Major to brighten and vary the stark simplicity of Zack Brown's sets. Major, making his debut with the Washington Opera, has turned out a bright, lively and well acted production. Conductor Joseph Rescigno's contribution is stylish, beautifully paced and finely balanced.