It took 261 years for George Frideric Handel's opera "Rodelinda" to make its way from the King's Theatre in London to the Kennedy Center in Washington. But, as Stephen Simon and a superb group of performers demonstrated last night, the music was well worth waiting for. The only problem (outside of a few minor ones with the performance) was that such a fine piece of music, so well performed, should come and go in a single evening.

Baroque opera seria is, of course, a specialized taste -- overloaded with rigid, extravagantly showy musical forms, plots complicated to and beyond the point of absurdity, and characters who seem to be abstractions formed of painted cardboard. But when it works -- as it does, superbly, in "Rodelinda" -- the effect can be intensely satisfying in both musical and theatrical terms. In "Rodelinda," the plot exists mainly to bring the characters to extreme states of mind: passion, jealousy, remorse and the purest of conjugal love; wickedness distilled to laboratory-pure intensity; idealism too lofty for this sordid earth; lust for power and revenge magnified out of all human proportion.

It may be hard to take seriously this story of a queen named Rodelinda, who is being pressured to marry a usurper (Grimoaldo) who killed her husband (Bertarido) and threatens to kill her son unless she says yes -- particularly when the audience knows that Bertarido is not actually dead but lurking in disguise, helplessly watching the whole plot unfold and agonizing that his supposed widow may be about to give herself to the nasty Grimoaldo -- who is actually, sincerely and not without anguish, in love with her. And it doesn't help that the role of Bertarido (a rather macho sort of fellow when he isn't languishing in well-motivated despair) is sung by a mezzo-soprano. Never mind the subplots; the main line (which includes an escape from prison, a thwarted murder attempt and an utterly improbable happy ending) is certainly enough raw material for more than three hours of high-energy emoting.

Handel rose to the challenge of "Rodelinda" in superb style. The music slacks off slightly in Act 3; at least, the arias, which were often electrifying in the first two acts, settle down to a level of merely high competence. The composer turns his mind away from purely musical considerations and the exploration of raw emotion in all its forms to take care of plot. More happens on stage in the last 20-odd (some very odd) minutes than in the previous 2 1/2 hours, and as the action speeds up the recitatives become exciting, with vividly descriptive orchestral accompaniment. But the arias of the first two acts and the magnificent love duet that ends Act 2 are what would bring the audiences back for repeat performances, if only there were any repeat performances.

They were in good hands last night. Lorna Haywood took perhaps two minutes to get her voice into its top form for the highly demanding title role, but after that it was one brilliant moment after another. She may have slightly outshone Sheila Nadler, in the role of Bertarido, simply because her part gives her a few more opportunities to shine, but Nadler's performance was spectacular, and when they joined voices in the love duet the effect was dazzling. The third woman in the cast, Fredda Rakusin performed less demanding tasks expertly.

The men were a bit less even; Jan Opalach was totally reliable and vocally impressive as one of the worst villains in opera; countertenor Jeffrey Gall sang with exquisite style and a voice that sometimes went slightly out of control. Tenor William McDonald sang always intelligently and stylishly but had small vocal problems on and off throughout the evening and seemed to be suffering fatigue in his last big aria. Stephen Simon conducted one of the finest performances I have heard under his baton -- vigorous, stylish, well-paced and alert to every nuance of color and feeling in the score. His orchestra was in its top form, which means that it played very well indeed.