AND HERE YOU see what we call 'Evita's Christ,' " a friend explained, pausing in front of a figure of Jesus at the entrance to a cemetery in Rosario, Argentina's third largest city. "A "When she died, they put a bust of her at the foot of the statue and people would bring flowers. The bust disappeared after Pero'n's overthrow in 1955, but people kept bringing flowers. Look at them." He gestured at the blossoms on the pedestal.

"They're not for Christ, they're for Evita."

In her day she was the second most powerful person in Argentina and, arguably, the most powerful woman in the world.

To atone for these and other sins, she has been made the subject of a mercifully short-running Broadway play ("The Diamond Orchid"), a soft-porn movie ("Little Mother"), a satirical farce in Paris ("Eva Pero'n," with a female impersonator in the title role), a boring TV mini-series, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera "Evita," which opens Thursday at the National Theatre.

The Argentine public will never see any of these productions. Though they distort and trivialize the country's history beyond the bounds of tolerable license, the more pressing reason for their exclusion is that they would incite violence.

Indeed, the memory of Eva Pero'n kindles incendiary passions even beyond Argentina. When a transvestite Evita appeared on stage in a tiny theater in the Parisian Latin Quarter, masked youths hurled tear gas, roughed up members of the audience and set fire to the scenery.

To this day the likeness of Eva Pero'n adorns the walls of many Argentine homes. Peronists treasure mementos of her like holy relics.

Argentines take Eva Pero'n very seriously. Young terrorists kidnaped and murdered the ex-president responsible for secretly shipping her corpse out of the country. Four years later the same group stole his body from its grave and held it hostage until the government brought her body back to Argentina. "Don't cry for me, Argentina . . . -- EVITA, IN "EVITA"

Given what has befallen Eva Pero'n in the long wake of her fleeting moments of glory, shedding a few tears on her behalf may not be inappropriate.

The current revival of interest in her fails to do her justice because outdated, biased source materials are still being used. "Woman With a Whip," a biography published shortly after her death and portraying Evita as seen by her most rabid political enemies, continues to be the bible on her.

Tim Rice's libretto presents a stale version of Eva Pero'n straight out of "Woman With a Whip." His Evita is a power-mad vixen who seduces first show-business personalities, then Juan Pero'n, and finally the entire Argentine nation. It is like basing the story of Eleanor Roosevelt on the nasty anecdotes her Republican contemporaries used to tell about her.

Much of the hostility toward Eva Pero'n stems from her lower-class beginnings. She was one of five illegitimate children born to a married rancher and one of his employes, whom he kept as a concubine. The mores of the day made it perfectly acceptable for him to maintain two families. The same standard did not apply to his mistress and her brood. When he died in an auto accident, he left to his illegitimate offspring his name and an ineradicable stigma.

Eva Maria Duarte, the youngest, was a school girl who suffered in silence the social ostracism that attached to her status. She escaped by fantasizing about the lives of movie, stage and radio celebrities chronicled in fan magazines.

"She sang all the time," recalled a neighbor. "When she was 8 years old she was already saying she was going to be an actress."

As she entered her teens she was an attractive youngster, petite and brunette, with a pale complexion and large brown eyes. Yet she was neither stunning nor vocally gifted.

Her three older sisters pointed the way to respectability by marrying into the middle class. Evita, however, left home in 1935 to seek her fortune on Corrientes Street in the heart of the Buenos Aires theater district. She was 15 years old when she arrived in the big city."Stand back Buenos Aires

Because you oughta know what'cha

gonna get in me

Just a little touch of star quality!" -- EVITA, IN "EVITA"

ALL THE reliable studies of Evita's life reject the charge that she worked as a prostitute during this period. She survived on grit and with the help of friends. Within a short time she was playing bit parts on the stage. This was her passage through adolescence, a trying period during which she endured hunger and the first signs of illness.

It was not until 1939 that she obtained a costarring role in a radio melodrama. As a recent biography by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro notes: "Eva was good at conveying suffering. When she found the soaps she found her acting career." Next came several supporting roles in motion pictures and a contract to do more radio shows.

The Rice libretto depicts a hard-as-nails Evita whirling through revolving doors from bedroom to bedroom, seducing lovers who could advance her career and then discarding them.

"Good night and thank you whoever . . ." -- CHE, IN "EVITA"

THIS IS the portrayal that emerges from the gossip spread by political opponents after she became first lady. It is as hyperbolic as the vision of Evita that inspired her followers to petition the Vatican that she be canonized. There is something about the country that breeds excess and dissolves restraint. One cannot begin to make sense of Argentina without grasping this phenomenon.

The Fraser-Navarro biography, the only recent study of Evita based on extensive interviews and up-to-date documentation, convincingly puts to rest the canard that she slept her way to success.

She had by now begun to acquire a bit of polish but the rough edges still came through in her speech and behavior. These were the days when she sat for photos that would later provide the grist for a campaign to discredit her. A 1940 movie magazine published them under the title "Eva Duarte Surprised by the Camera." They displayed the winsome brunette in various pin-up poses, baring her legs, shoulders and a bit of breast. Later her enemies would reproduce them, and today these "skin pics" are anti-Peronist collectors' items. The use to which they have been put tells much about the nature of the hostility Eva Pero'n has provoked.

The Webber-Rice musical perpetuates the myth that Evita was the driving force behind Juan Pero'n's meteoric rise to the presidency. This follows all too neatly from the distortion of her theatrical career, in that she is presented as manipulating him as she had manipulated others in her ruthless quest for stardom.

It also fits nicely with the image of Pero'n as a sinister yet cowardly colonel who needed a woman's help to succeed.

Yet it was he who manipulated her, subtly, by giving her a new role to play and enough space to grow into it. "Eva Pero'n was a product of mine," Juan Pero'n once told an interviewer. How Eva Duarte evolved from actress to first lady to "Spiritual Chief of the Argentine Nation" contrasts sharply with the static Evita that Webber and Rice limn.

She met Juan Pero'n at a benefit for earthquake victims in early 1944. Soon they were living together. It was a perfect match, the handsome strongman behind the military government ruling Argentina, and the actress, now one of the best-paid radio performers in the country. He was 48 and a widower. She was half his age.

They had both been born out of wedlock and shared a contempt for the social classes above them. Before Eva entered his life, Pero'n not only lived with a teen-aged girl (whom he nicknamed "Piranha" because of her overbite) but flaunted her in public as his "daughter." Associating with Evita was another way for him to thumb his nose at society.

She was open, uninhibited and outspoken, qualities that greatly appealed to him. Instead of fading into the woodwork when the colonel invited military and politican associates to the apartment, she sat in on their meetings.

"We were discussing a pending government appointment when Evita burst in," a participant at one of these sessions recalls. "Pero'n introduced her. 'Hi, boys,' was the way she greeted us. She seemed high-strung and her words came out in torrents. She did not hesitate to voice her opinions in very direct language. 'Why do you want to appoint that guy?' she said of the person we were considering. 'He's a s---.' We were all quite astonished."

T"Things have reached a pretty pass

When someone pretty lower class

Graceless and vulgar, uninspired,

Can be accepted and admired." -- ARISTOCRATS, IN "EVITA"

THE LINK with Pero'n did not hurt her career. She obtained her best movie role yet in a film called "Circus Cavalcade," which required her to bleach her hair. She decided to remain a blond.

The decisive moment in Juan Pero'n's political life occurred in mid-October 1945 when elements in the army forced him to resign from the government and then had him arrested. The rock opera depicts Eva Duarte as his deliverer, backboning resistance to his enemies and rallying workers to his cause.

This makes for good drama but poor history. In fact, Evita had much to do with his downfall but nothing to do with his escape.

Many of Pero'n's uniformed colleagues took great offense at his relationship with her. As one officer recalled, "The impudence of that woman reached intolerable heights. For example, one day she stood next to Pero'n at the swearing-in of a cabinet minister and she let her arm drape across the back of the president's chair."

Pero'n further incensed the military by appointing as director of the post office a friend of the Duarte family instead of an army officer who had the backing of his peers. Though other factors were involved, this provoked so strong a military protest against Pero'n that he had to step aside. The Navy then took him into custody.

It was a group of union leaders who mobilized a mass march on Buenos Aires and forced the authorities to turn Pero'n loose. Evita played no part in the giant demonstration. At this stage she was not yet politically active. However, shortly after his release she married her colonel in a quiet ceremony.

The government scheduled elections. Evita remained very much in the background during the campaign. Pero'n, the underdog candidate, won convincingly in what everyone recognized as the cleanest election in Argentine history.

At one of the inaugural banquets, Eva Pero'n wore a gray silk gown that left one of her shoulders bare. Protocol required her to sit next to the cardinal of Buenos Aires. Photos published in the press recorded the event for posterity and scandalized conservative upper-class Argentines.

She was young, beautiful, street-smart and totally instinctive. One of the first things she did after the inauguration was to secure good jobs for members of her family. This set her apart from Pero'n, whose only concession to nepotism was to make his brother head zoo keeper of Buenos Aires.

Unlike the president, she was fiercely loyal. Once she told a Peronist leader, "It's worth your while to be on good terms with me. I'll back you up. I'm a good friend of my friends. You won't get this from Pero'n."

She had a childlike fixation for jewelry. Those who sought her favor plied her with gems. It was a practice that lent itself easily to abuse.

Gen. Vernon Walters, former deputy director of the CIA and now a diplomatic trouble-shooter for President Reagan, felt a tap on his shoulder during a reception in 1947. "I turned and looked down. There was Evita. I was standing on her gown. I had heard stories about her toughness and was surprised at how utterly feminine she was."

Her political views reflected those of her husband and she did not presume to question them. But she had no inhibition about intruding into mundane administrative matters. On this level she relied on energy and intuition, qualities she possessed in abundance.

Pero'n was quick to realize what a valuable commodity she was. He let her represent him at ceremonial functions and make an occasional speech. She liked to present herself as "Comrade Evita, a girl from the provinces." Lower-class audiences responded to her with enthusiasm.

Then came a momentous opportunity. She received an invitation to visit Spain. Similar bids from Italy and France followed, and Evita prepared to launch herself into the international spotlight.

Argentines attach inordinate import to the attention their country attracts overseas. Even a trip with no ostensible purpose, like Evita's, could bring her great prestige at home merely by generating favorable publicity abroad.

"Let's hear it for the Rainbow Tour . . ." -- CHORUS, IN "EVITA"

ON THE DAY of her departure in June 1947, she sent Pero'n a touching letter that O revealed her tremendous anxieties. In earthy language she expressed her fear of dying in an accident and gave instructions to be followed in the event of her death.

As her plane took off she called her party together and, according to published reports, urged them to be on their best behavior. "All over the world they're watching us and some people are hoping we fall on our faces so they can come down on us. So don't screw up!"

Not yet recovered from its bloody civil war, Spain gave Eva Pero'n a delirious welcome. After long years of deprivation and isolation, the Spanish people were in dire need of the psychological uplift their glamorous visitor provided. They treated her like a storybook queen.

She stayed in palace rooms decorated with gold brocade and furnished with museum pieces. In Seville she rode in a coach for 20 blocks lined with children who tossed flowers and released doves. In Grenada she dined with artificial moonlight.

At one point, according to the Fraser-Navarro biography, the receptions so overwhelmed her that she asked a priest who was accompanying her what an illegitimate child like her had done to deserve it.

In a cable to Washington, the U.S. ambassador to Spain begrudgingly summed up the visit as "something of a triumph." He added that "she carried out a difficult task with poise and intelligence." When Eva Pero'n returned home, she was ready to assume a more active role.

"Affairs of state are her latest play

Eight shows a week (two matinees) . . ." -- ARISTOCRATS, IN "EVITA"

"HERE ARE some documents written by Pero'n himself." The former Peronist official handed over a thick file marked "Personal Archive of President Pero'n." Investigators had seized the whole archive after Pero'n's ouster.

"I stumbled on it by accident," the Peronist explained. "There must have been hundreds of these files. The rats were eating them. I picked up two that looked interesting, hid them under my coat and walked out with them."

One of the documents was a typed draft of a speech Evita delivered on a major holiday. It was heavily edited in handwriting that was unmistakably Pero'n's.

The Webber-Rice opera follows the myth that Evita was the de facto ruler of Argentina and Pero'n served as "front man," content to carry out the dictates of his ambitious wife.

Interviews with contemporaries reveal that it was Pero'n who nudged her into political activity, though she had great aptitude and zest for it. She was the only person he ever trusted absolutely and he delegated broad authority to her.

This was the period of Eva Pero'n's transformation. She discarded the curls and gawdy attire of her fledgling days as first lady and went to a more severe, streamlined style. Her hair was pulled back, accentuating features that seemed increasingly gaunt.

When she held open house in her office, she customarily kissed women visitors. A poet who was working with her told how he once threw himself between the first lady and a supplicant with a syphilitic sore on her mouth. Evita brushed him aside and pressed her lips against those of the unfortunate woman.

"Never do that again," she told the shaken poet later. "It's the price I have to pay."

An American observer described one of her platform performances: "Evita was beautiful and wore a tailored suit. She launched right into a denunciation of oligarchy. She had the voice of a fishwife, raw and raspy, guttural, comfortable with slang and bad Spanish."

Evita served as her husband's hatchet person, causing cabinet ministers and other high officials to resign and taking the blame. She seemed to be running the government, but it later became clear that each of her victims was someone Pero'n wanted to eliminate.

Though a professional actress accustomed to playing parts, Evita began to believe the words Pero'n and others put in her mouth. In her own mind she fused image with reality. She became what her most fawning followers called her: "Lady of Hope," the "Spiritual Mother of All Argentine Children," "Saint Evita."

Juan Pero'n was a supreme cynic. Eva was the genuine article. The common people of Argentina understood this and loved her for it. Their passion endures.

"Then I must be vice president!"-- EVITA, IN "EVITA"

IN HER heyday Eva Pero'n ran the women's branch of the Peronist Party and was the intermediary between her husband and organized labor. She also administered millions of dollars in health and welfare expenditures through her social aid foundation.

Webber and Rice depict an insatiable Evita demanding even more: inclusion on the ticket with Pero'n in the 1951 presidential election.

Although both the Peronist women and the unions pushed her into running for the vice presidency, Pero'n did not want her to be nominated. He had nothing to gain politically by running with her and much to lose, since the armed forces still hated her. So he torpedoed her candidacy in a way that made it appear as though the military was responsible.

"Your little body's slowly breaking down . . ." -- PERO'N TO EVITA, IN "EVITA"

BAD HEALTH stalked Eva Pero'n throughout her life. She succumbed to illness during the European tour. A newspaper describing her activities in mid-1948 noted: "An acute bronchitis makes her cough often. She asks for aspirin and tea. The rings under her eyes are even more pronounced because of the paleness of her face." In August 1949, a U.S. military attache quoted her as admitting that she had lost 22 pounds in one year.

In January 1950 she underwent an emergency appendectomy. Her surgeon later claimed that while she was hospitalized, tests revealed she had uterine cancer, but she refused to submit to a hysterectomy that might have saved her life.

She threw herself back into her work with reckless abandon. Now at the height of her power, she seemed to feel that major surgery was an interruption she could not brook.

Hers was the worst kind of death, an awful agony that lingered for nearly a year. Her weight shriveled to 81 pounds. In what turned out to be her last balcony speech, Pero'n had to support her. He looked as though he held a doll in his hands.

Her final public appearance was at her husband's inauguration. In the best "show-must-go-on" tradition, she took pain-killing shots, propped herself on a brace that her long fur coat concealed and rode with Pero'n in an open car to the ceremonies.

On July 26, 1952, at the age of 33, Eva Pero'n entered immortality, as the official announcement put it. An orgy of mourning ensued. The wake went on for two weeks.

"Eyes, hair, face, image

All must be preserved . . ." -- EMBALMERS, IN "EVITA"

THE MOST potentially touching scene in the rock opera occurs as the final curtain begins to drop. Evita is lying in state. A group of men closes in on her, eager to work on her earthly remains. Although the staging does not make this clear, they are embalmers.

A Spanish professor of anatomy did the actual embalming, a masterpiece that restored her youth and beauty. Her final resting place was to have been a gigantic monument. A military coup that dumped Pero'n in 1955 aborted its construction.

The new regime had the body seized and hidden in a truck that parked unobtrusively in downtown Buenos Aires. When a candle and flowers mysteriously appeared next to the vehicle, they stored the corpse in a crate at army headquarters.

Fearful that the Peronists would steal the cadaver, the government eventually had it shipped to Milan, Italy, where it was buried under the name "Maria Maggi."

Years passed. The Peronist movement not only survived but grew stronger, as regime after regime proved incapable of solving the country's problems. From exile in Madrid, Juan Pero'n did a superb job of making things difficult for the presidents who followed him.

He also remarried. His new wife, a young cabaret dancer who went by her stage name Isabel, had none of Evita's fire, charisma or intuition.

In 1971 the Argentine government decided it had to deal with Pero'n. For openers they returned Evita's body. It was quietly exhumed, transported by rail to Spain and delivered to his doorstep. Opening the casket, Pero'n found the corpse disheveled, its nose slightly flattened, but otherwise intact. Instead of having the body interred, he simply left the casket in a room on the second floor.

Pero'n returned to Argentina in 1973 and was elected president for the third time. Evita remained behind. Isabel, who had become his vice president, took over when he died on July 1, 1974. Several months later, in an effort to distract public attention from her incompetence, an aide flew to Madrid and brought Evita's body back home.

In 1975, I accompanied a U.S. Embassy official who secured a private viewing of the body. The security precautions at the presidential residence in the suburb of Olivos were impressive. In the crypt of a tiny chapel in one corner of the grounds, Eva Pero'n lay next to her husband's sealed coffin. The Spanish anatomist had repaired the slight damage to her. A long white robe complemented her alabaster skin. She seemed asleep.

They used her in life, they used her in death.

When the military overthrew Mrs. Pero'n in 1976, the body was turned over to Evita's surviving sisters, who deposited it in the family tomb at the Recoleta Cemetery.

There are always fresh flowers at the gate.