The Stuttgart Ballet returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House last night for the first time since 1979, receiving a warm greeting from a packed house for its performance of John Cranko's "Eugene Onegin."

Nothing stays the same, of course, and today's Stuttgart is not the one we saw seven years ago. Though many of the principal dancers were with the company then, quite a few having moved up through the ranks, about two-thirds of the troupe is new to us.

On the whole, at least as far as this "Onegin" was concerned, the differences seemed to fall on the negative side. Perhaps it was due to an unfortunate choice of opening night cast -- it's obviously too early in the two-week run to know. In any case, a ballet that once was capable of sweeping us along in a tide of romantic passion and doom felt flat and artificial in last night's rendering.

Perhaps it's our perspective that has changed as well. Cranko's kind of story ballet, which was his forte and the basis of the Stuttgart's ascent to international renown, once seemed immensely fresh and rewarding. If the choreographer ran against the prevailing American tide favoring abstraction, he was much in tune with the European tradition of opera house ballets that put drama, music and decor on an equal plane with dance elements. If he succeeded, even with American audiences, where others did not, it was because of his innate flair for dramatic ballet and a fine gift for dance characterization.

But the American popularity of Cranko ballets like "Onegin" also derived from the cadre of superb dance-actors he had at his disposal, and especially the celebrated quartet of dancers for whom he created his best-known works: Marcia Hayde'e, Richard Cragun, Egod Madsen and Birgit Keil. Three of them (all but Madsen) are still with the company; indeed, Hayde'e has been its artistic director since 1976. If the present day Stuttgart Ballet has cultivated a new generation of dancers worthy of their footsteps, however, it wasn't in evidence last night.

In this performance, "Onegin" looked dated, absurdly melodramatic and choreographically thin. Part of this may ascribed to natural attrition -- the passage of time and taste hasn't been particularly kind to Cranko's idiom in general. But weightier reasons lay with the dancers' inability to do justice to that idiom. "Onegin's" merits haven't vanished. The ballet's clearly related tale of heartbreak, based on the Pushkin drama; its melodious, effectively moody score (various Tchaikovsky pieces, mostly lesser known, arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze); Cranko's rapturously florid duet passages; and Ju rgen Rose's beautifully harmonized sets and costumes -- these remain as they were. But such virtues are of little avail without a cast that can dance and act on a par with Cranko's inspiration.

In the crucial role of Tatiana, whose unrequited love for Onegin fuels the drama, Susanne Hanke was weak in both departments. Her dancing was stiff and academic, her characterization mechanical. Vladimir Klos (who danced the title role here in 1979) was a credible Onegin, though so thoroughly a rotter as to leave little room for empathy with the character. But his dancing lacked fire, energy and fluency. As Lensky, Tamas Detrich struck a handsome presence and had some effective dramatic moments; his dancing was shaky, though, and his overall portrayal rather callow. Among the four principals, the one who came closest to a truly compelling realization was Annie Mayet as Tatiana's flighty, girlish sister Olga, but it's not a role that can by itself redeem a whole performance.

Mayet, however, will dance Tatiana later in the run, as will Hayde'e. These and other cast changes may well shed another light on things. Still to come, also, are the Washington premiere of John Neumeier's "A Streetcar Named Desire" (tonight) and a mixed repertory program next week, and these, too, may alter our initial impressions of the troupe. For now, one can only sadly take note of a disappointing beginning.