It was the radiance of Darci Kistler as Titania that lifted the New York City Ballet's opening performance of Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" from mere excellence to a plane of exalted incandescence Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

She alone wasn't responsible for the evening's enchantment: The ballet itself and its beguiling production counted for much, as did a large and superb cast of principals, an inspired ensemble, the disarming brigade of area children recruited for the occasion, and the singers and orchestra under the warmly robust direction of Robert Irving.

But it was 21-year-old Kistler who set the tone and the artistic high-water mark. The California-born ballerina was still 15 when she joined NYCB in 1980, the year she was first seen in Washington in a memorable "Swan Lake (Act II)." She was promoted to soloist in 1981, and to principal dancer the next year. Then she suffered a serious foot injury that led to major surgery and kept her off the stage until last February. For a long while it was doubted that she would ever be able to return; only her heroic persistence made it possible.

Now that she's back it's more obvious than ever just how special she is, and why Balanchine took particular interest in her in his last years. From her first majestic duet with her Cavalier (Otto Neubert), to the ravishing solo she danced with her 12-maiden retinue, to her touchingly tender pas de deux with Bottom (Laurence Matthews), to her final scene with Oberon (Ib Andersen), she was a glowing Titania, at once youthfully resolute and agelessly seraphic. No dancer ever projected more unalloyed joy in the act of dancing. Special, too, is her physical quality -- her body extends itself like a billowing sail, expanding to its fullest elastic contour in lines of breathtaking eloquence, emblems of a brimming spirit.

Andersen was a brisk, lordly Oberon, dancing his forbiddingly taxing first-act solo in blinding explosions of beats, jumps and pirouettes. Jean-Pierre Frohlich was a scintillatingly mirthful Puck, feet fluttering like visible laughter. Heather Watts' ardently singing line in the sublime adagio of the second-act Divertissement, with Sean Lavery as her staunch partner, was a pinnacle of its own. Stephanie Saland's sympathetically distraught Helena stood out among the confounded mortal lovers, the others appealingly danced by Judith Fugate as Hermia, Daniel Duell as Lysander and Peter Frame as Demetrius. Also worthy of special note were Nichol Hlinka as the sprightly leader of the butterflies, and Victoria Hall as an aptly bravura Hippolyta. Matthews played Bottom more toward the droll side than the wistfully vulnerable, but the part is sure-fire in any case. The ranks of butterflies, pages, hounds, fairies and courtiers all contributed handsomely.

This ballet was one of Balanchine's little jokes, not on the public, but on the pundits who thought they had him neatly pigeonholed as an abstractionist. The word was that story ballets weren't his cup of tea, even though he'd done a few in earlier years and had restaged some narrative works of the classical tradition. "Pure" dance pieces such as "Concerto Barocco" and "Agon" -- so the theory went -- were his true forte.

So, in 1962, he ups and makes "A Midsummer Night's Dream," his first original full-length opus, using Shakespeare's plot and music by Mendelssohn, some of it from obscure but treasurable scores that Balanchine's unfailingly discerning ear had rooted out of the archives. In the process he proved -- as Tuesday night's performance demonstrated anew -- not only that he could make a story ballet, but that he could do it better than anyone else.

Instead of contradicting the idea that movement was primary for Balanchine, however, the work corroborates it. It's the dance elements in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that give the ballet its depth, charm and durability. The theory wasn't incorrect, merely incomplete. In addition to being a master artisan of steps, phrases and patterns, Balanchine was also a crackerjack storyteller when he wanted to be. In the case of "Dream," he not only chose an exceptionally intricate and potentially confusing story, but delineated it so concisely and lucidly that it remains to this day a paragon among dance narratives.

However outstanding the opening night performances, the manifold roles of "Dream," like those of any ballet worth repeating, are but templates, capable of being filled out by dance characterizations of greatly varying hue and accent. There will have been seven performances of the work by the time the final one rolls around Sunday afternoon, and the major roles will be rotated among the unparalleled storehouse of NYCB artists. Each combination is likely to bring its own unpredictable rewards.