The audience began to applaud last night's "Magic Flute" at Wolf Trap as soon as the overture began and the first scrim was shown: a collage that included a jungle landscape, three genii, a silhouette of Mozart and some mythical beasts. The audience was right; in this "Magic Flute" the scenery and costumes (the work of Maurice Sendak) are, all alone, worth the price of admission.

Last night, after some tentative moments in Act I (typical of opening nights everywhere), the performance was as impressive as the scenery. This is a "Magic Flute" to be treasured and remembered.

The orchestra sounded a bit thin in the overture; perhaps it should have been larger or more richly amplified. The singers were young (except for veteran Jerome Hines in the role of Sarastro) and presumably most of them were performing their roles for the first time. But problems were few, and this "Magic Flute" grew steadily better from a fine beginning to a triumphant end.

The chief problem in this opera is that of harmonizing its foolishness (centered in the roles of Papageno and Monostatos) with its sublimity. Sendak's visual concept, which moves easily from a world of wild fantasy to one of pure rationalism, helps tremendously. Even in the most solemn moments, there are subliminal, irrational details in the scenery: rocks that resemble human faces or bodies; bushes with branches that could almost be claws. Elements of unreason and potential terror -- the dragon at the beginning, the Queen of the Night's mute servants, the lions and miscellaneous monsters, the ordeal of fire near the end -- are touched with a whimsy, even a cuteness, that domesticates them. They lack a convincing air of reality, but in "The Magic Flute" that is as it should be.

Outstanding in the generally fine cast were Hines (as was to be expected) and Dawn Upshaw in the role of Pamina. Hines used his heroic stature (towering above everyone else on stage) and his deep, finely controlled voice to emphasize the nobility of the larger-than-life Sarastro. Upshaw's tone is warm and well-nuanced, and she uses her voice intelligently to convey all the emotions of a multifaceted role, tender concern for her suffering suitor, despair when she feels rejected, anguish when her wicked mother tries to make her a murderess and ecstasy when the trials end in a triumph for love. Her appeal last night was total, and she took not a single false step, even in Act I when the performance was still finding its pace and tone.

Tenor Richard Croft, as Tamino, faced his most severe test almost at the beginning, in the portrait aria; his tone was fine throughout, but his phrasing lacked the ultimate subtlety. He settled into the role rapidly, however, and gave, in sum, a highly satisfactory performance. James Michael McGuire, as Papageno, also took a few minutes to settle into the role -- not vocally, but theatrically. His stage gestures lacked freshness and spontaneity at the beginning, but not for long, and once he had acquired his stage presence, he was outstanding. Gordon Hawkins, as the Spokesman of the Temple, handled his vocal assignments in excellent style and with rich, warm tone. His acting is a shade less effective than his singing but quite acceptable.

The strength of the Wolf Trap Opera Company is shown particularly in the excellence of its casting in secondary roles. During their big scene at the beginning of Act I, the Three Ladies (Phyllis Treigle, Lureta Bybee and Victoria Livengood) were marvelously funny and vocally superb, lavishing first-class talents on tiny roles that are mostly sung in three-part harmony. Clearly, they are destined for greater things, but their strength in these supporting roles greatly enhanced the production.

One of the finest aspects of this production is its handling of the usually problematic role of Monostatos, the comic villain who is traditionally sung in blackface. Darren Keith Woods, a fine tenor and an excellent comedian, dispensed with the blackface, and his scenes lost the usual minstrel-show overtones without losing any comic impact.

Vocally the most demanding role in the opera is, of course, that of the Queen of the Night, who does not have much singing to do but must perform prodigious feats of coloratura in her two big arias. Rachel Rosales was not quite perfect; her lower register lacks the impact of her high notes, and her pitch was slightly off on a few notes. But she was spectacular, singing with bravura and a sense of ease in the parts of the music that are usually considered most difficult. Barbara Kilduff was funny and vocally effective as Papagena.

Richard Woitach conducted a thoughtful, often delicately flavored performance, finely considerate of the young singers' needs.