Handel's opera "Tolomeo, Re di Egitto" opened the Maryland Handel Festival resoundingly Thursday night in the University of Maryland's Tawes Recital Hall. This was essentially a student production with a limited budget, but it gave a musical satisfaction attributable equally to Handel's superb material and to the talented, well-prepared performers. The libretto is not one that 20th-century audiences are likely to find appealing or convincing, but it serves well to move the production from one musically striking situation to another.

Handel was a musical and theatrical genius, and the score of this opera is vivid, energetic, passionate, sometimes witty, always theatrically apt and pulsing with life. It was superbly performed by a young cast and the Smithsonian Concerto Grosso under the adept baton of Nicholas McGegan.

Except for the splendidly villainous baritone Aurelius Gori, the singers were the same ones (all women, two in trousers) who had sung the opera's American premiere here last April. Each role was vividly and distinctively characterized, theatrically and vocally.

While the quality of singing was approximately equal among the four leading women, some roles gave more opportunities than others. These were most cleverly exploited by Jennifer Hughes-Lopez, who blended superb comic acting neatly with fine coloratura singing. In the title role, mezzo Molly Donnelly strutted and postured most manfully. Her voice, used with power and grace, had (after warming up) a firm, rich tone. Jennifer Wynne Post's role was less vivid and the style of her music was relatively simple by Handelian standards. All it required was beautiful singing, and that she delivered abundantly. Mezzo Susan Fleming filled the more modest demands of the second trouser role with distinction.