Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Saint of Bleecker Street," which opened a sold-out run last night by the Washington Opera in the Eisenhower Theater, is a relative rarity on the operatic scene: an opera that actually takes a close look at religion.

I mean ecclesiastical religion -- the activities and preoccupations of organized churches; systems of belief and the way they affect people's behavior -- not the kind of nonsectarian moral issues you find in almost any good story or the supernatural phenomena that are so common in opera, like the statue that drags Don Giovanni down to Hell or the Devil who steals the show in most of the "Faust" operas.

Opera composers like to use religion as a backdrop, such as the church (beloved of set designers) where the first act of "Tosca" takes place or the choruses of monks that Verdi liked to put in the background for his sopranos' big, anguished arias in "Il trovatore" or "La forza del destino." In many operas, the leading lady goes off to a convent (usually for a very short while) when the pressures of the world get to be too much. Religious paraphernalia serve as a piquant disguise for erotic drives in such operas as Massenet's "Thais," Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila" or this season's biblical extravaganza "Salome," all of which are really about sexual obsession, not religion. But that is not the same as the head-on confrontation between belief and unbelief that you get in "The Saint of Bleecker Street."

Someday, somebody will make an opera out of "Elmer Gantry," which has all the necessary ingredients -- sex, piety, money and corruption -- but until then, the souls of clergymen will remain essentially unprobed in the standard operatic repertoire. There are plenty of clergymen in opera (including the odd Druid or Grand Inquisitor), but they usually exist only to utter benign platitudes in deep voices.

Women in religion get a little more attention, with at least two first-class operas in the repertoire. One is Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites," which the Washington Opera should consider producing; the other is "The Saint of Bleecker Street," which will be here through Feb. 3.

This will be the fourth production of a Menotti work by the Washington Opera since the company produced his double feature of "The Telephone" and "The Medium" in its 1983-84 season -- possibly its most successful production of the past decade. It will also be the eighth production Menotti has directed for the Washington Opera since the 1981 "La Boheme," which established a new standard for the company and, in the view of many critics, surpassed the Metropolitan Opera production directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

Menotti, more than any other individual, gave the company its special flavor in the 1980s with the productions in which he has been involved: his own works, "Telephone" and "Medium" (1983-84 and 1984-85), "Goya" (1986), "The Consul" (1988); and works of other composers, "Boheme" (1981-82 and 1984-85), "Eugene Onegin" (1985-86), "La Cenerentola" (1982-83 and 1983-84) and "Tosca" (1988-89). Unlike the Washington Opera's Menotti productions of the 1980s, "The Saint of Bleecker Street" originated elsewhere; it was originally produced for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and later given by the Opera Company of Philadelphia -- with very positive reactions from audiences and critics on both occasions.

This production marks a major anniversary year for Menotti; he will be 80 on July 7. Birthdays have a special meaning for the composer (who also writes all his own librettos), and an oblique reference to his astrological sign (perhaps to his own temperament and destiny) may be found in the opera. A friend of Michele, the male lead, reads a horoscope magazine and makes a prediction (true, as it happens) about him: "Weeping, these, for him, are days of weeping. It is all predicted clearly in his sky. Venus has moved into the sunhouse of Capricorn. Ah, me, for any man born in July! Tears, and a journey very far, this is predicted in the sign of Cancer. All in the stars... . "

Astrology is one form of belief obliquely contrasted with orthodox Christianity in this opera. Another, related, is the superstition, thinly disguised as religion, that focuses on Michele's sister, the "Saint" in the title. She is named Annina, lives in the part of lower Manhattan known as Little Italy, and sometimes bears the stigmata (the wounds suffered by Jesus on the Cross), as did St. Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio, Therese Neumann and a number of other Catholic mystics. Her superstitious neighbors believe that Annina can perform miracles; they try to get near her during her painful, ecstatic visions of the agony of Christ, to touch her in the hopes that their illnesses may be cured. Some of them, in Act 1, Scene 2, kidnap her and carry her in a religious procession, like a statue of the Madonna -- against her will. She makes no special claims to holiness or miraculous powers.

Michele is an unbeliever, in contrast with his sister. "Superstition!" he shouts, while Annina is suffering a vision and stigmata in the next room. "Who are these people who create your saints? They worship God out of defeat. They look for wonders to forget their poverty, to redeem their failure." Michele is also ambivalent about his Italian heritage. "Although you made this land your home, you live like strangers," he tells his neighbors. "... I do want to belong, belong to this new world. I don't want to be told: 'You foreigner, go back where you have come from! You foreigner, go back to your old home.' My home... . Where is my home?"

Menotti has said more than once that he identifies with Michele, and this speech may also echo the composer's feelings. He was born in Italy and still spends much of his time there, but his home now is in Scotland. He studied in the United States, works here frequently, writes his operas in two versions, English and Italian, and includes quite a bit of Italian (and liturgical Latin) in the English text of "The Saint of Bleecker Street." His Festival of Two Worlds (called the Spoleto Festival after the Italian town where it originated) is held each year in the United States and in Italy. The Italian segment (significantly?) comes after the American one, and runs up to his birthday.

If Menotti identifies with Michele, the outcast and unbeliever, he also identifies (as he has said) with Annina, the mystic. This internal tension undoubtedly contributes to the extraordinary intensity of the opera. Also contributing is Michele's feeling for Annina, which amounts to thinly disguised (and physically unfulfilled, unfulfillable) incest. This is thrown at him tauntingly in the pivotal Act 2 by his mistress (and fellow outcast) Desideria: "It is all clear to me now, the reason you will not marry me... . Let everyone hear this. It is not with me that you're in love, {pointing at Annina} it is with her." He then kills Desideria in a fit of anger, becoming a fugitive from justice as well as an outcast from the community.

In the final scene, Annina, on her deathbed, is fulfilling her life's ambition to become a nun when Michele breaks in, tries to stop her and is held back by family friends. While she takes her final vows and dies, the stage directions say, he "stands staring at the remainder of the ceremony, stunned and incredulous."

The fact that the tensions in his plot and his music echo the tensions in his own psyche undoubtedly gives Menotti's operas their special power. He has been out of fashion in academic and avant-garde circles for most of his career but has been a constant success with audiences, partly because he stuck with melody when it went out of fashion and partly because he does not seek technical innovation for its own sake. More than a composer, a librettist or a stage director, he is a total man of the theater, fulfilling all those functions at once. Unabashedly old-fashioned in style (a point that will seem less important a century from now, when all his contemporaries are also old-fashioned), Menotti may have achieved timelessness precisely because he does not try to be timely.

Whatever the reason, in his treatment of people in extreme emotional states, people in the grip of forces they do not accept or understand, Menotti has repeatedly come very close to what opera is all about, to what makes it produce such powerful reactions in audiences and what keeps it (the best of it) alive for century after century.