GIAN CARLO MENOTTI'S dramatic opera "The Consul," in a new Washington Opera production that opened Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, is a fine work that, at the moment, is enduring its passage through a sort of artistic maturity.

Written almost 40 years ago, the opera now has enough historical perspective to be appreciated as timeless.

With some reservations, this is a musically and dramatically powerful production. The casting is magnificent. Badiene Gray as Magda Sorel and Emily Golden as the secretary share top honors here -- Gray for the intensity and pathos of her performance in a role that requires extravagance, and Golden for her ability to communicate the emptiness of the bureaucracy in a role that permits no extravagance at all.

Ariel Bybee as the Mother and David Groth as the Secret Police Agent are entirely convincing embodiments of good versus evil, and the pathetic quintet of petitioners who warm the benches of the Consul's waiting room, sung by Herbert Eckhoff, Bibiana Goldenthal, Adolfo Llorca, Mary Jane Howe and Barbara Hocher, establish their marvelous identities as immediately through their bearing as through their singing.

One of the problems in directing this opera is to establish a line between the real, reflected in John Sorel's relationships with his family and police agents, and the surreal, everything else that goes on. In this production, that line never gets established. Manuel Melendez as Assan, a sympathetic friend, finds just the right quiet tone for his role, but William Stone as Sorel being pursued by an evil state is too melodramatic and heavy-handed to allow this dichotomy to work. Menotti himself, however, is directing this production and, presumably, has gotten what he wants.

Zack Brown's sets and costumes speak volumes about the character and nature of the people who live in them, and Cal Stewart Kellogg conducts with a keen sense of both caricature and lyricism. WASHINGTON OPERA -- "The Consul." Remaining performances are Monday and February 5 with matinees on Saturday and February 7 at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.