The quality of the Washington Opera's season escalated to a new level Saturday night in the Eisenhower Theater. Gian Carlo Menotti's chilling "The Consul," brilliantly directed by the composer and conducted with power and clarity by Cal Stewart Kellogg, generated even more impact than the excellent "Madama Butterfly" that had earlier been the season's emotional high point.

Musically, "The Consul" is one of Menotti's finest inventions, but its real strength is the blending of music and drama for an enormously heightened theatrical experience.

In the Eisenhower, "The Consul" seems not to have aged a day since its first performance in 1950. At that time, in the early stages of the Cold War and the chaotic aftermath of World War II, Menotti raised an eloquent cry against bureaucracy and dehumanization. It won him a Pulitzer Prize for artistry, but he could as well have been given an award for public service. The issues he raised -- the violence of the state against its citizens, the reduction of human beings to papers in a dossier and codified answers on a questionnaire -- have only grown more acute in the years since "The Consul" first appeared. And, of course, nowhere are these issues more clearly focused and felt than in this city.

More than once on opening night, one had the feeling that a substantial part of the audience was watching a reflection of itself on stage. One partakes of tragedy in silence, but Menotti's direction also brought out a surprisingly strong element of comedy -- unremembered from earlier productions and barely hinted at in the original cast recording, but clearly justified. The comedy was centered in the almost monstrously prim figure of the Secretary, the opera's embodiment of bureaucracy -- a difficult role sung with a beautiful voice and strong, deftly understated acting by Emily Golden.

Near the end of the opera, the Secretary and Vera Boronel (well sung by Martha Jane Howe), the only petitioner who actually gets an exit visa, sing an exultant duet of paperwork triumphant: "Sign your name at the bottom of this page ... Sign the original and all the duplicates. All the documents must be signed. Seas go dry and the sun grows cold, but all the documents must be signed." The nervous laughter that greeted this duet seemed to show an unusual level of audience identification, from people who had surely suffered on both sides of the paperwork process.

But mostly the Secretary is, like the Secret Police Agent chillingly portrayed by David Groth, an emblem of dehumanization, a contrast to those who bleed internally and sometimes cry out while sitting, as patiently as they can manage, in waiting rooms. "Are you secretaries human beings like us?" the tragic heroine Magda Sorel asks the Secretary. "Papers! Papers! Papers!" she shouts in anguish. "... What will your papers do? They cannot stop the clock! They are too thin an armor against a bullet!"

Later -- but not until she is alone and unobserved -- the Secretary shows her humanity in a touching aria: "One must try not to remember, one must not think, otherwise how can one do any work!" Although she represents an inhuman system to Magda, to Mr. Kofner (Herbert Eckhoff), the Foreign Woman (Bibiana Goldenthal), the Magician (Adolfo Llorca) and the others who spend their lives "in endless waiting rooms" where "the hours stand still, the light goes pale and thin, the heart is dead," the Secretary also feels the system's inhumanity and suffers from it.

The audience leaped to its feet roaring approval when Badiene Gray, who was making her Washington Opera debut in the role of Magda, came onstage for her curtain call. She earned this tribute with a deeply touching portrayal of quiet desperation, suffering through interrogations, vividly staged nightmares, the insane inhumanity of bureaucratic machinery and an emotional crisis that verges on nervous breakdown. Sometimes, particularly in forte passages, she chose beauty of tone over clarity of diction, but she sang exceptionally well -- as did everyone else in the cast.

On the whole, insofar as one can judge from the original cast recording, this production is significantly better cast than the 1950 performance. There is no weakness anywhere -- from William Stone, who gives a firm voice and credible presence to John Sorel, a role poised on the brink of melodrama, to Manuel Melendez, who is effective in the small role of Assan, a courier for the resistance movement. Ariel Bybee brings deep tone and heartbreaking eloquence to the role of the Mother, and Barbara Hocher is vivid in the small role of Anna Gomez.

But the performer who should receive a special award for bringing life to a small role is Bibiana Goldenthal, brought from Romania to sing (entirely in Italian) the tiny part of the Foreign Woman. It took extra effort to put her into this production, and it was eminently worth it. The quiet persistence with which she goes about the business of filling in a form while more vivid things are happening all around her attracted a share of attention that might seem unbalanced. But it also presented in cameo virtually the whole meaning of the opera. The role is not spectacular, but for connoisseurs of theatrical presence it was, all alone, worth the price of admission.

The applause was most tumultuous of all for Menotti, whose long-ago work as a composer has been revitalized by his current work as a stage director. His presence could be felt in every gesture, every vocal inflection throughout the evening. By now, this phenomenon has become familiar. It happens whenever Menotti stages an opera in Washington -- not only his own "The Medium" or "Goya," but a heartbreaking "La Bohe`me," a hilarious "La Cenerentola," a memorable "Eugene Onegin."

Even with such experiences recalled from recent seasons, however, it always comes as a little shock -- a thoroughly enjoyable shock -- to see how an opera production comes to life when it is touched by Menotti's vision. He is not only a powerful composer and an eloquent librettist (in a language to which he was not born); he is a man of the theater for whom music, words, scenic design (by Zack Brown -- as splendid as ever), lighting and body language all harmonize wonderfully.