"Lavish" is seldom the word for productions of the Prince George's Civic Opera, but it is amazing what this company can do on a low budget. Whatever the actual cost, the appearance was lavish in "The Merry Widow" that was given Friday night and repeated Sunday afternoon in the Queen Anne Auditorium of Prince George's Community College.

The costumes for a large cast, chorus and such extras as Petrovenian ethnic dancers and a chorus line of grisettes from Maxim's were varied, atmospheric and ... yes ... lavish and effectively used in Dorothy Biondi's colorful stage direction. The scenery hinted at opulence without quite achieving it, but the voices are the most important element, and they were excellent, from the chorus right up to the four principal singers.

The surprise of the evening was the performance of Dominic Lonardo in the small and usually nonsinging part of Njegus, the factotum of the Petrovenian Embassy in Paris. He brought to this role a focused energy, a sense of character and an uninhibited stage presence that many of his colleagues in this production, particularly in secondary roles, would do well to imitate. His usual outlet is the Source Theatre, but the P.G. Opera would do well to bring him back as often as possible to serve as a role model for others. He supplies -- lavishly -- the ingredient most often missed in this company's productions.

The star of this show, and one of the problems on opening night, was soprano Jody Rapport in the title role. She sang beautifully throughout, but sometimes in Act 1 her perfectly phrased, fine-toned and precisely styled singing was not well projected into the audience. The problem was not balance; conductor Mark Janas not only paced and balanced the orchestra well, he adjusted its sound precisely to support the voices on stage. It may have been that she was singing in the auditorium with an audience for the first time and it took a while to get the feel of it. Or it may have been simply that her voice gained strength as it went along. Whatever the reason, her singing in Act 3 came across with a power that had earlier been heard only intermittently.

Carolene Winter in the role of Valencienne sang with impressive agility and control throughout. Steven Robert Rainbolt made an impressive Danilo, vocally and theatrically, and G. Stephen Stokes filled the role of Camille with fine singing and ardent acting. Richard Thomas, as the ambassador, stood out among the supporting roles, and dancers from the American Contemporary Ballet Company added notably to the effectiveness of this production.