Placido Domingo remembers the 1961 film "El Cid" with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. And he knows all about the legendary operatic performances by the French brothers Jean and Edouard de Reszke, and Pol Plancon at New York's Metropolitan Opera a century ago. But Domingo's a Spaniard, and he's a tenor, which is what made Massenet's opera "Le Cid" irresistible. The work, which began a three-week run last night at the Kennedy Center, is the gala, Domingo-starring blockbuster that opens the Washington Opera season.

Jules Massenet, whose "Werther" and "Manon" are well-loved secondary staples of the operatic canon, falls somewhere below Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Strauss and Donizetti on the operatic A-list. And his "Le Cid," based on Pierre Corneille's dramatization of the early life of the Spanish hero El Cid, is not even well-known Massenet.

Domingo's choice of the heroic grand opera as his star vehicle to kick off the season--effectively a re-premiere of an opera that hasn't been staged in this country for almost 100 years--is delightfully risky. And for him, it will be personally taxing: The role requires Domingo, now 58, to produce a youthful, "pingy, lyrico-spinto" sound.

"It is a much better score than anybody believes," says Domingo, who has a substantial collection of Massenet's scores. "It has moments of fanfare and 'big opera'--with ballet, which was required at the time--but there is a lot of great, great music in this score."

Massenet (1842-1912) ruled the stage during his day, and was one of the most prolific composers of his time. But the Frenchman is remembered best for the smaller weepies, in which his delicate and refined vocal writing comes out most strongly. Domingo admires, in particular, his ability to set up very intimate moments of reflection or dialogue, his ability to prepare the listener for a whisper that will reveal the torrents of pain about to surface.

In "Le Cid" the composer was working in a much larger and more formal format, with sizable choral and orchestral resources, challenging and dramatic vocal parts, and scenic requirements that would still test Hollywood's resources. Paradoxically, however, grand opera is also one of the most intimate of art forms. Like "Don Carlos," Verdi's best foray into the genre, "Le Cid" intersperses erotic dialogue, political intrigue and solitary meditations with crowd scenes, military exploits and onstage murder.

The two operas also share another grand-opera staple: otherworldly apparitions. On first blush, they seem rather ridiculous to contemporary sensibilities despite this country's widespread popular belief in small prodigies, angels and the like.

Most critics over the last century have focused on, and usually deplored, grand opera's excessiveness. The form seems too crowded, not just with spectacle but with stock plot twists. The supposedly dead hero returns alive. The well-meaning king makes a fatally wrong choice. Prayer leads to heavenly intervention.

In its most mannered form, grand opera does indeed verge on self-parody, such as the notorious dancing dead nuns of Meyerbeer's "Robert le Diable."

But far from being its most essential fault, the excessiveness and even vulgarity of the form defines its basic aesthetic. Audiences craved, and composers readily supplied, these seemingly preposterous and disconnected plot and musical devices. Like English pantomime, or commedia dell'arte, the standard elements are a prerequisite for the ritual, which may then go in any number of directions. Or, like high-quality Hollywood action films, the obligatory car chase, love scene and shootout are more mandatory than excessive.

Today all of the right elements rarely come together to perform French grand opera--adequate singers, adequate money and a receptive and tolerant audience. While occasional productions around the world have lifted other Massenet operas out of obscurity--"Herodiade," "Esclarmonde," "Cendrillon," "Le Jongleur de Notre Dame," "Cherubin," "Don Quichotte"--"Le Cid" has been pretty much a labor of love unique to Domingo.

"I sang it in Carnegie Hall in 1976, and then several times in concert in Europe," says Domingo, who will take the tenor and title role of Rodrigue, a k a El Cid. "It is the kind of opera that if you have a very good soprano and a very good tenor, you decide to do 'Manon' instead because that's easier. To find three great singers, for the three major roles, is much more difficult."

And convincing the powers that be in a large, but generally conservative American opera house that it would be better to stage Domingo's signature role in "Le Cid" rather than, say, his signature role in Verdi's "Otello" isn't easy, either.

"You can play it easy with the 'ABCD' operas--'Aida,' 'Boheme,' 'Carmen' and 'Don Giovanni,' " he says. "My dream is to have a full subscription, a full house no matter what. It is a pity that opera lovers do not hear certain things."

The dilemma has recently taken a small toll on Domingo's aspirations. Plans to stage an obscure opera by the 19th-century Hungarian composer Ferenc Erkel next season have been nixed by the company's board of directors. Domingo is disappointed and rightly so. The work that's been dropped, "Bank Ban," was a triumph in 1861. Restaging it today would have aroused serious critical interest and given the opera company something unique to offer the larger musical world.

Like "Bank Ban," "Le Cid" was as outrageously successful in its day as it is now totally forgotten. Operas like these make us question the reliability of what history tells us about the triumphs--and failures--of the past.

It is endearing that Domingo, himself already an entry in the history books, is willing to be suspect of historical judgment. He has used his position as artistic director of the Washington Opera to explore a fascination with the great flash-in-the-pan successes of the last century. His 1996 restaging of Antonio Carlos Gomes' "Il Guarany"--a sort of morality play meets "The Last of the Mohicans" in a South American rain forest--is another example. He is also intrigued by how the singers and their performances are received and remembered.

"When you read about something that happened 150 or 100 years ago, you get an impression, you ask, 'Can it really be so good?' " he says. "In my life, when I first started being interested in opera, I saw performances that for me will never be erased from my mind. And it is possible that even though they were very great people, if I could sit down and be at that performance now, I would have a different impression. I wish we could go back in a time machine to hear that performance."

The real El Cid tried to defeat the Moors. The legendary El Cid conquered time through epic poetry, French classical theater, no fewer than 26 different operas and, of course, a big, overscaled, deliciously overwrought Hollywood film. The real Placido Domingo has conquered the opera house. He may have designs on posterity as well.

Placido Domingo recorded "Le Cid" with the Opera Orchestra of New York in 1976. It is available on Sony Classics 34211.