No less a figure than Gabriele D'Annunzio, the eminent soldier and author is said to have remarked of Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" that "the wonderful thing about it is how operatic it is." Self-evident, perhaps? Not really, as one can tell from the splendid version nos being produced at the Kennedy Center by the Washington Opera.

A product of 1859, "Ballo" is a major step in Verdi's post-"Traviata expansion of the dimensions of Italian opera, which years later would produce the starkly eloquent juxtapositions of good and evil, of love and hate in, for instance, "Otello." In "Ballo," Verdi is thinking big- the gloomy early scene at the fortune tellers lair, or the concluding masked ball that ends in regicide. He is also thinking big musically, with that profusion of mimorable ensembles and with the sharp contrasts of mood, especially in the orchestra. It was the latter that seemed to have struck d'Annunzio. In fact, the book of "Ballo" isnot all that distinguished, but Verdi surmoints the problem with a composition of great range and intensity.

The way the Washington Opera's "Ballo" maintains this overall intensty is, fortunately its strong suit.

Much of the credit for this hoes to two men who never appear on stage- conductor Cal Stewart Killogg and director Francis Rizz0. Both seem to realize that if you keep the pulse of "Ballo" moving right, the beautifully shaped music will take care of the drama, and any inadequacies of the story will go unnoticed. Yet, in this performance, there is no sense that the opera is being driven.

The three lead singers are less than ideal: soprano Adelaide Negri (Amelia); tenor Franco Bonisolli (Riccardo); baritone Juan Pons (Renato). But all are adequate.

There are some awfully rich roles at the secondary level. And in one of them, the attendant Oscar, soprano Cyndia Sieden is truly first rate, both vocally and dramatically. Mezzo Fredda Rakusin is an effective, if not terribly passionate, Ulrica. Zack Brown's sets are less flashy than hes norm, but certainly serve their purposes.