Let us return in memory to that golden day in October 1492 when a lookout aboard the Santa Maria first shouted (in Renaissance Spanish) "Land ho!" and the stalwart Cristo'bal Colo'n (a k a Christopher Columbus) prepared to take his first step into the virginal bounty of a new world.

It wasn't quite that way, if we are to believe "Christopher Columbus" -- a sort of musical documentary, factitiously attributed to Jacques Offenbach, that is now being presented by the Washington Opera in the Terrace Theater.

Columbus wasn't on the Santa Maria, according to this confection. He had made his way to Manhattan in a rubber raft, having been thrown overboard by a crew that consisted largely of his abandoned wives -- for America's was by no means the first virginal bounty he had explored.

He wasn't all that stalwart, either. He suffered from seasickness throughout that momentous voyage, protesting all the while: "I'm not seasick, I'm just sick of the sea." It seems Columbus was not really a great navigator; he was a young man on the make. And America was not the most important of his discoveries; that was Coca-Cola, with which he planned to get rich. He also discovered a maiden named Minehaha, whom he promptly made the fourth simultaneous Mrs. Columbus (divorce was not approved in those days).

As must be clear by now, a travesty is being perpetrated in the Terrace Theater. History is falsified and icons are shattered. Obscenity is rampant. Thespians rage, unchecked by considerations of propriety or dramatic logic.

The tunes, however, are all good; Offenbach should not be blamed for the plot, but he deserves credit for the music. It is really a question of what was done with Offenbach's music -- assembled from various works, we are told, by one Patric (sic!) Schmid, whose very existence is questionable. Maybe the National Endowment for the Arts could look into this matter. Extraordinary efforts should be made to stop the fellow (if he exists) before he strikes again.

Meanwhile, we have "Christopher Columbus" for 13 more sold-out performances, and I suppose we must try to make the most of it. In this production, the one who makes the most of it is mezzo-soprano Elaine Bonazzi, who dominates the stage totally as the dissipated but energetic Queen Isabella, then returns at the end for the somewhat less strenuous cameo role of the Statue of Liberty. She is equally impressive as a singer and an actress, joining the two functions into a superbly integrated interpretation. Every perfectly articulated syllable works ideally, both as music and as comic acting; a personality is projected not only through the words, the timing and the dramatic inflection but through subtle variations of tone.

She first enters (from beneath a couch, preceded by a champagne bottle) with a hangover scene more epic than any drunk scene in operatic history. "Last night was one of those nights you remember," she sings -- then it turns out she has completely forgotten. Or almost completely: "A woman got drunk, it was dreadful to see,/ She stripped to the waist . . . Oh, my God, was that me!"

This opens the key scene in the work's structure (if it has a structure). Columbus is brought before her on charges of trigamy and charms her totally: "You blush and suddenly the petal of a rose is put to shame," he sings. "To write his masterpiece a poet only has to speak your name." Behind his back, his three wives mouth the words in perfect synchronization; they have all heard it before. But Isabella has not; she dismisses everyone but Columbus and offers him "a helping hand" along with other bits of anatomy. Ferdinand seems rather relieved to have someone share his conjugal workload, and he is intrigued with the theory that the world may be round: "It would put us three months ahead of the competition on the trade routes to the Indies." This is a small but demanding role, and it is done expertly by Zale Kessler.

In the title role, tenor David Eisler confirms the strong impression he made last season in several performances of "The Rake's Progress." He has a fine-sounding, well-controlled light tenor voice and a knack for comic acting not nearly common enough in tenors. Other standout performances are given by Robert Orth as Luis, president of the Round Earth Society, and the ever-reliable John Fiorito as the chief of police.

Given Columbus' amorous propensities, it is natural that this production has a large number of women's roles -- including three wives (Robin Tabachnik, Dana Krueger and Cyndia Sieden) and a fiance' (Karen Hunt), not to mention Isabella, Minehaha and miscellaneous others. The wives do a lot of ensemble singing as well as solo turns; Krueger stands out among them, although all are good. Hunt makes a strong impression, vocally and in the projection of a somewhat bemused but deeply appealing personality. Tabachnik's voice is impressive, but given her costume for this production, her voice is likely to receive less attention than her excellent legs -- particularly a prominently displayed left leg.

In general, on opening night the women did not articulate the English text as clearly as the men, the two shining exceptions being Bonazzi and Krueger. Act 2 was better in this respect than Act 1, and continued improvements should be heard as the production settles securely into its acoustic environment. Zack Brown's new sets and costumes are even more ingenious than his usual high standard, if not quite as lavish. The stage direction of Roman Terleckyj and the choreography of Baayork Lee are equally inventive, though it took a while in the first scene for the performers to fine-tune their movements. Randolph Mauldin conducted impressively -- notably in a well-staged storm scene that ranks with Rossini's efforts in this specialized genre.

Because the Terrace performances were practically sold out by subscription, the Washington Opera has set up a special waiting list service for tickets that become available at the last minute. Those who phone Instant Charge at 857-0900 or the subscription office at 223-4757 may be able to get last-minute seats and give the company a chance to sell some tickets twice.