FOR DECADES NOW, aspiring artists have been trying to set "Gone With the Wind" to music -- never successfully. And it may just be that the closest anyone will ever come to doing justice to that kind of material is Tchaikovsky's and Pushkin's opera, "Eugene Onegin" -- which the Washington Opera performed in a splendid version last Saturday.

One of the most emotionally satisfying works of the whole operatic repertory, this melancholy profile of a doomed society is hard to bring off. Tchaikovsky threw all he had into the work: It has at least five very demanding roles, and a host of others of considerable difficulty.

The Washington Opera version, directed with predictable authority by Gian Carlo Menotti, is fortunate in its casting.

Young Washington baritone J. Patrick Raftery in the moody title role is especiall fine. It marks an important step forward in his development. The loveliness of his sound has never been in question, but the quality of Raftery's acting in this challenging role is something new. Onegin's brooding disdain for others in the first two acts and his despair at the result of this in the last act are portrayed with intensity and discipline.

Korean soprano Hei-Kyung Hong is not quite so tailor-made for the very difficult leading role of Tatiana. Her voice was steady and accurate and the acting was consistently excellent -- whether as the naive 17-year-old of the country estate or later as the mature grande dame in the grandeur of St. Petersburg. The voice is a bit lighter than ideal for the role, with the result that an occasional note got swamped by the orchestra in the grueling, and great, letter scene.

Tenor Jerry Hadley's Lensky, the friend whom Onegin kills in a duel, was very good, aside from a rare strained note. His pre-duel duet with Onegin was especially stirring.

Other particular standouts: Cynthia Munzer as Olga and Eric Halfvarson as Prince Gremin.

The production, by Pierluigi Samaritani and borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is trully idyllic where it is supposed to be, grim where that is needed and, at other times, regal.

On opening night, the most conspicuous weakness was in the orchestra, which was idiomatically conducted, as one would expect, by Maxim Shostakovich.

The problems were ones of pitch and solo articulation, especially the horn, which was having an unfortunate evening.

EUGENE ONEGIN -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House on Friday, Wednesday and November 19 at 8; Monday at 7; and November 17 at 2.