The Washington Opera opened its abbreviated 1985-86 season Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House with a "Don Giovanni" that provoked a more active (and positive) audience reaction than any other performance of this opera I have ever seen.

The performance justified this response; it ranked with the best in my experience. But the audience was not responding only to the quality of the singing and acting. The presence of surtitles (which often sacrificed literalness wisely for elegance) gave the average audience member a clearer view than ever before of what was happening onstage. There were laughs where American audiences have never before laughed at "Don Giovanni." In this curiously ambivalent work, which is half comedy and half tragedy, the comic element for once got its due. Most of the laughter came where it should -- for example, in the epic "Catalogue" aria, where Don Giovanni's servant Leporello (sung superbly by Claudio Desderi) runs through a list of his master's amorous conquests: "In Italy, 714, in Germany, 231; 100 in France, in Turkey 91; but in Spain . . . in Spain, there are already 1,003."

The laughter was particularly intense, and thematically right on target at the point where Don Giovanni (suavely and seductively sung by Renato Bruson) states his philosophical view on monogamy: "To be faithful to one would be cruel to the others." And it was riotous during the earthy, intensely sensual duets of Zerlina and Masetto (Faith Esham and Stephen Dupont, two superbly talented young American singers who nearly stole the show).

Zerlina and Masetto are the peasant couple whose wedding celebration Don Giovanni interrupts with his attempt to seduce the bride with "La ci darem," perhaps the most musically enchanting and dramatically effective operatic duet ever composed. Zerlina's capitulation to the don may raise fine metaphysical points; she yields her consent, but is interrupted before she can yield any more. But the domestic results of this momentary lapse are physical, with no "meta" at all.

First, Zerlina sings an aria about wife beating ("Batti, batti, bel Masetto") whose sadomasochistic overtones somehow acquire a healthy peasant flavor in Mozart's music and Esham's performance. Later, when Masetto has been beaten by Don Giovanni, she has an exquisitely sexy aria about the comforts a loving wife can offer a husband who is injured but not totally disabled. These items, usually played for comic relief, achieve a high level of kinky lyricism in this performance.

Masetto, traditionally the smallest featured role in the opera, is devoted mostly to expressions of class indignation and husbandly outrage. This character became larger than life in the rich-voiced, superbly acted performance of Dupont, who may have given the best performance of the cast (with allowances made for the limitations of his material) on opening night. The other contender for that distinction was Desderi, whose Leporello was vivid, finely nuanced and superbly comic -- aided nicely by one of his props -- a catalogue of seduced women that was quite a bit larger than an unabridged dictionary. These two roles, and that of Zerlina, received the finest performances in my experience.

This does not mean that the others were bad. Bruson has the title role completely in hand; his voice was in fine form and his characterization was vivid, well detailed and consistent. As Donna Anna, Karen Huffstodt was convincing both visually and vocally. Philip Langridge, in the role of Don Ottavio, sang with just the right style in a voice that was precise but subject to changes of color when it moved from one register to another. Dramatically, there is not much that can be done with this role; Ottavio is destined to strike heroic poses while accomplishing nothing. At least Langridge's poses were properly heroic.

Quite a bit more effective were the poses of Eric Halfvarson as the Commendatore. In Act 1, he plays an old man murdered by Don Giovanni, a scene that was not convincingly staged on opening night. In Act 2, his challenge is harder; he plays the statue of the murdered man, returning to exact vengeance on the murderer. He was the most convincing statue in any "Don Giovanni" I have seen -- largely because of the technical wizardry of the company's people backstage, but also because of Halfvarson's vocal and histrionic skills.

The most problematic role in the opera, Donna Elvira, was given to Karita Mattila, a young Finnish soprano who showed enormous promise and considerable fulfillment on opening night. Vocally, she was excellent. Theatrically, there are still a few things she can learn about this role, which has thwarted the best efforts of performers far more seasoned than she. The problem is in the material; Elvira, whom the don promised to marry and then abandoned, tracks him through the opera like an avenging fury, breaking up one amorous scheme after another.

At first, she is an object of pity, but eventually she can come to seem like a nag -- funny when she should be tragic. This happened at her third appearance, in the recitative "Ah ti ritrovo ancor" ("Ha! I have found you again, perfidious monster"), where it must be admitted the libretto is not very helpful. The audience laughed; it shouldn't have, but the laughter was understandable. There are also dimensions of pathos in Elvira's later scenes that Mattila will explore as her career develops. She seems well equipped to deepen the role even further and perhaps to find new dimensions in it.

There has never been a perfect "Don Giovanni," and this one was no exception. Shortcuts were taken in several places where the don and Leporello have to escape from tight situations simply by dropping a scrim (a scrim ex machina, you might say) between them and their accusers. It should be possible to do it better. The orchestra could use a fuller string tone, which would mean more strings. But John Mauceri, called in at the last minute to substitute for the ailing Daniel Barenboim, drew from it and from the cast an excellent musical interpretation.