EROTICISM and religion have always been a potent brew. Add to the mix frenzy, dementia and full frontal nudity and you have . . . the Washington Opera's season opener, a vivid and daring production of Strauss's "Salome."

This is not a production for the faint of heart. Maria Ewing is magnificent as the obsessed Salome, which means that she writhes about the stage in self-induced ecstasy brought on by an abortive attempt to seduce the captive John the Baptist. Ewing sheds her veils and everything else she has on in a successful effort to get the reluctant Herod to decapitate John and then makes revolting love to the dripping head, all in perfectly splendid voice and perfectly awful self-absorbed craziness.

She whips up all this trouble among an exceptionally strong and balanced cast. Ragnar Ulfung as Herod carries the complex role of lecher, husband, ruler and judge with grace and subtlety. Joyce Castle is an ideal Herodias, a larger-than-life shrew with a nasty streak that borders on the comic. Michael Devlin, costumed in white body paint and a lank wig, is a properly fanatic John ("Jokanaan" in the opera), and fine singing and acting is contributed by Stephen O'Mara as Narraboth, Janine Hawley as the page, a wonderful quintet of argumentative Jews, and a small group of soldiers and pilgrims.

The Edvard Munch-like starkness of John Bury's set, with its luminescent sphere of a moon, and its ever-changing patterned projections, reflects the evolving story with powerful effect, as does director Jeannette Aster's static blocking, which projects the action against an almost tableau-like setting.

Gerard Schwarz conducts Strauss's vividly suggestive score with authority and careful attention to orchestral color.

WASHINGTON OPERA -- Strauss's "Salome." Continuing Sunday (matinee), Thursday, Nov. 19 and 23 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Most performances are sold out by subscription, but some returned tickets are available; call the Washington Opera box office at 202/416-7800.