@DINK:MUS+

One more tragedy from the calamitous 20th century.

Hans Krasa was a wealthy young musician of German Jewish extraction who grew up in Prague and played an active, if uncelebrated, part in that city's remarkable intellectual life during the 1920s and 1930s. He was a student of the composer Alexander Zemlinsky (who also taught Arnold Schoenberg); he was a friend of Max Brod, the author, translator and literary executor for Franz Kafka. Some of his music made it to the United States in the '20s; two movements from an early Krasa symphony were performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the legendary Serge Koussevitzky. And, in 1933, Krasa's first opera, "Verlobung im Traum" ("Betrothal in a Dream"), received its world premiere at Prague's New German Theater.

It was the highlight of his professional life. Trapped in Czechoslovakia after the Munich accord, Krasa was interned in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp by April 1942. On Oct. 16, 1944, he was transferred to Auschwitz, where he is believed to have been immediately put to death.

Nothing more was heard about Krasa for many years. Then, in the early '90s, a young conductor named Israel Yinon took an interest in his work. He discovered the original manuscript of "Betrothal in a Dream" in the storehouse of a Viennese publisher, conducted the first performance in six decades, and, on Saturday night, brought it to the Kennedy Center for its American premiere, mounted by the Washington Opera. There will be 11 more performances, beginning tonight (weather permitting) and continuing through Feb. 10, in the Eisenhower Theater.

It would be difficult to imagine a more earnest, committed, intelligently conceived and deeply felt production than the one the Washington Opera has provided. The color scheme combines grim, dusty black and white (fitting for a work that has just been pulled from an archive) with lurid maroon and lime green, a taste of decadent Weimar. The direction, by Karel Drgac, is animated and tasteful, and the players all seem to belong to the same world. Yinon, with his long, straight hair and expressive features, resembles a gloomy Prince Valiant; his conducting was both balletic and directly to the point.

The opera itself is frustrating -- not because it is less than fully professional, but because Krasa was so obviously almost ready to surpass anything he actually accomplished in this work. Indeed, "Betrothal in a Dream" might be compared to a final examination or a doctoral dissertation by an enormously gifted student. Everything is correct, and almost everything is admirable, but we are acutely aware of the effort Krasa expended to leap his chosen hurdles.

Over the course of the opera's two hours (there is one intermission), Krasa proves that (a) he knew how to write gracefully for the human voice; (b) he could spin out strong, telling, variegated arias, duets and ensembles for his principal players; (c) he had a sure mastery of the modern orchestra (there are some particularly eloquent passages for saxophone); (d) he had an unusual ability to delineate character in his music (the writing for the heroine, Zina, doesn't sound like the writing for the villainess, Marya, although both are recognizably by the same composer); (e) he had listened critically and with profit to Stravinsky, Berg, Weill, Richard Strauss and Janacek, by way of forging an aesthetic of his own.

Moreover, assuming that Krasa wrote this opera in chronological order (Act 1 followed by Act 2), one can hear him grow as the evening progresses. The best moments in the score come toward the finale of Act 2, during which Zina and the bibulous, lecherous Prince, having become engaged to each other for less than noble reasons and under less than optimum circumstances, call the whole thing off. This is set to music of lambent and radiant tenderness. (Unfortunately, it is probably the least dramatically effective passage in the opera; the action, which had been bustling along quite briskly, suddenly stops cold.)

Krasa makes one disastrous tactical error: He has Zina sing Bellini's aria "Casta Diva" for the Prince, then builds his own ensemble around her interpretation. The resultant set piece is lively, interesting and original and, with a less magical foundation than "Casta Diva," Krasa might have gotten away with it. But because this melody is so extraordinary (both elaborately florid and all but motionless -- even Bellini never wrote anything that quite compares) it makes Krasa's own music seem less potent than it actually is.

Singers usually get shortchanged in reviews of unfamiliar material, and I'm afraid this article will be no exception. Suffice it to say that Brigitte Hahn made a warm, full, multidimensional and sweetly sung Zina; that Mildred Tyree vividly conveyed Marya's manic, boiling ambition (one suspected that she would have appreciated more humor in her role, and that she would have done well by it); that Peter Parsch was a gruff, vulgar and ultimately very likable Prince; that Joseph Wolverton sang the malevolent Paul's music in a high, bright, clear tenor voice; that Molly Fillmore, Julia Anne Wolf, Josepha Gayer and the immaculately dignified John Shirley-Quirk all contributed to the evening's success.

Had Krasa lived, he might well have become an important composer. In the meantime, "Betrothal" is not merely a curiosity but a good, sincere, expertly wrought opera of the second rank. It deserves this production and it deserves your attention.

For performance information, call 202-416-7800. CAPTION: Brigitte Hahn and Mildred Tyree in the Washington Opera's production of "Betrothal in a Dream." ec CAPTION: Peter Parsch in "Betrothal." ec