THE FETCHING young American soprano Erie Mills once told an interviewer, "I was the Shirley Temple of my hometown," and that's roughly the way she plays the title role of Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment" in the Washington Opera's joyful new production. It opened at the Terrace Theater on Saturday night.

The daughter, Marie, is a foundling adopted by a French Grenadier regiment, no less, on the condition that upon maturity she marry one of her "fathers." Got that? As for the character of Marie, just imagine an older "Annie" who is in the army and you've got the idea.

This opera represents Donizetti -- the bel canto master who gave us the deep pathos of "Lucia di Lammermoor" and the ineffable elegance of "Don Pasquale" -- on a lesser creative plane. But that is not to say that it cannot be full of fun, and, in a few spots, real melodic splendor.

Even with all the froth, "The Daughter of the Regiment" can be a considerable challenge, especially the title role, which has lured coloraturas from Lind to Sutherland. For the course of the first act and the start of the second, Marie must be perky and funny in the soubrette tradition of light opera. Well into the second act, however, the singer must also be prepared for a real zinger that Donizetti throws her way all at once.

Marie's fortunes at love have reached a true nadir, and she sinks into true bel canto melancholia in a moving recitative and aria, beginning, "There is no more hope . . . " And suddenly Donizetti has switched signals, into the realm of high art -- in an aria that is a real test of a singer's capacity to sustain a mood, and a lyric line.

It is very much to the credit of Mills, already at 32 one of the more highly regarded young American singers, that she is just as assured in the serious stuff as in the light relief. The voice does not seem particularly large (though that is hard to judge in the Terrace's dry acoustics). But it is spectacularly accurate, with particularly sharp articulation and a wonderful gleam, especially at the top.

The other really demanding role is the tenor part of Tonio, Marie's peasant lover. John Fowler's accomplishment did not quite measure up to Mills'; there were some shaky moments, as well as some lovely ones (those Terrace acoustics really are merciless with detail).

Mezzo Joyce Castle sings the Marquise of Berkenfield nicely and is a hilarious comedienne (accompanying Marie on the harpsichord in the second act, she creates a satiric delight). The redoubtable Francois Loup is his usual disarming self as Sergeant Sulpice, the regimental commander. Good, too, are Jonathan Green as the Marquise's servant, Hortensius; Vladimir Ezkarkhov as the corporal; and Muriel Smallwood as the Duchess of Krackenthorp.

Zack Brown's sets are sleek as usual -- the second-act castle scene is especially alluring.

Director Leon Major and conductor Joseph Rescigno hold it all together with style. And there doesn't seem to be much more Rescigno can do with the sometimes sqeaky timbres of the Terrace orchestra.

THE DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT -- At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, with performances Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, January 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 25, 27 and 29, and February 1.