The New York City Opera came roaring back to Wolf Trap last night, better than ever after a three-year absence. While Wolf Trap recovered from a disastrous fire and the New York company weathered some serious financial problems and a reorientation of its own season, the artistic quality of its productions has suffered not at all.

Puccini's "Turandot," the opening-night attraction, is not a favorite among Puccini's operas, but it contains some of the greatest music he ever composed. Last night "Turandot" received a performance fully equal to its stature.

After several seasons of operating at a fraction of its potential, Wolf Trap is finally back to a normal summer. The calendar for this season promises quite a few high points, but it will be hard for anything to surpass the opening night.

As happens so often at Wolf Trap, the start of the outdoor opera season coincided with an outburst of the rainy season. Uncooperative weather kept the audience down -- the lawn was almost empty except for a few hardy souls.

"Turandot" is an expensive opera to produce, not only because it requires lavish, exotic sets and costumes, but because the music demands a chorus and orchestra of unusual size and potency. Under the able baton of Christopher Keene, the City Opera fulfilled these requirements impressively.

The opera's most serious problem is that of casting the title role. There are never many sopranos around who have the extraordinary power and control in their upper range that Puccini demands for this part, and most of the few who can sing Turandot are kept too busy singing Wagner. This is crucial. The audience may respond more warmly to Liu, the slave girl who commits suicide rather than reveal the tenor's life-or-death secret, but the opera is built on its title role and cannot really work without an extraordinary Turandot.

Linda Kelm, whose credits are mostly in German opera and particularly in Wagner, fits the vocal requirements of the part almost ideally. Her lower register is fine, although not much used in this role, but her high notes are something to marvel at; they cut through or ride triumphantly atop the richest orchestral sound Puccini ever devised with power and total clarity.

The music for chorus and orchestra in this opera is the most technically advanced and powerful in any of Puccini's works, and for almost all of Act 1 the chorus is really the center of attention. The City Opera's chorus filled its role superbly with well-balanced and excellent tone and a colorful, varied theatrical impact. The orchestra was equally impressive.

Two roles share the spotlight equally with Turandot and sometimes steal it away: Liu, who was well sung and touchingly acted by Maria Spacagna, and Calaf, impressively sung by tenor Jon Fredric West. Like Kelm, West scored fewer points for stage presence than for vocal ability, but their voices were both heroic, superbly controlled and well matched. Spacagna received healthy applause at the end, and had earned it with a superbly poignant performance, but the credits for this performance should be equally divided among the principals.

Secondary roles were all capably filled, and the sets and costumes were as impressive as anything the Metropolitan Opera brought to town last month. Surtitles were used for the first time at Wolf Trap, providing a running translation of the Italian text. They were larger than those usually seen in indoor productions and highly legible from most parts of the auditorium. Lawn patrons who want to take advantage of this innovation should arrive early, however, and find places as far front as possible.