A surprisingly numerous contingent of Salt Lakers was in the audience for June 10-12 performances of "Salome," "Der Rosenkavalier" and "Capriccio," which comprise San Francisco Opera's stellar Celebration of Richard Strauss, with six performances of each opera during June. (A dramatized concert version of "Daphne" will be added June 30 and July 1.)

Full houses suggested a national opera audience hungry for the ripe late Romanticism of Germany's great musical dramatist, and gratification of the knowledgeable operagoer's need for a periodic return to the stately War Memorial Opera House. There SFO, arguably America's second company in importance, frequently stages American debuts for noted international artists and provides a second home for many beloved singers, while consistently training its own significant young artists.The three works - Strauss' first explosive success, which rocked and shocked the early 20th century opera public; his well-loved, waltz-laden comedy drama, which poignantly caresses the many faces of love; and his last sophisticated recapitulation of his knowledge and opinion, with many references to his own and others' music and characters - provide a telling sketch of a life in opera that spanned the first half of the century. Without exception, their performance is in the hands of experts - superbly produced and staged, beautifully sung and masterfully conducted.

Incidentally, feminists as well as music lovers should be gratified with these choices, for at the center of each opera is a remarkable woman.

The SFO presentation of "Salome" is that of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, produced by Peter Hall in 1986, which has since been seen also in Kentucky, London's Covent Garden, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. John Bury's art nouveau stage design is stunning - spikey, drooping trees and vines, mirrors and sparse furnishings lit by a giant white slow-moving moon whose changing colors convey a sultry, decadent sense of impending doom.

SFO's strong cast is led by Maria Ewing, the Salome of choice in Hall's production, and she is marvelous, dramatically, vocally and physically. The voice is clear and innocent, yet sensuous, and her final monologue, addressed to the severed head of John the Baptist, is chillingly repulsive. Her slow dance heats to animal ferocity as she circles the cistern prison, then drops her seventh veil to reveal stark nakedness; an inevitable, artistic conclusion that gives no prurient offence.

Among the large, competent supporting cast, Leonie Rysanek masterfully portrays a coarse and venal Herodias, and English tenor Robert Tear makes a memorable SFO debut as a Herod of clearly delineated motivations, nervous energy and bright, authoritative voice. Baritone Tom Fox, playing Jokanaan in shocking white body paint and flowing black hair, delivers his excoriating condemnation arrestingly, and Mark Baker is a convincing Narraboth, besotted by love.

Inspired by Oscar Wilde's play "Salome," Strauss conveyed a similarly overripe sensuality and decadence in a one-act opera that has been characterized as a kind of tone poem. The instrumental score is indeed wide and deep, all of a piece with the singing, and it is gloriously realized by the SFO Orchestra, from its headlong entry into the heart of the drama to the cacophonous extinction of Salome's life, under the galvanic leadership of SFO music director Donald Runnicles.

Strauss turned deliberately to the lighter side for "Der Rosenkavalier." And with his delightfully engrossing story of love among 18th century Viennese, based loosely on diaries of the Hapsburgs by librettist Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, he made his desired Mozart connection; for there is a close parallel between his Marschallin-Octavian and the Countess-Cherubino in "The Marriage of Figaro."

While young love buds and flowers between Octavian and Sophie, it is the more complex character of the Marschallin that holds the listener's attention - her worldly-wise maturity, her generosity, her bittersweet relinquishment of present joy to future inevitability.

Felicity Lott brings physical beauty and worldwide experience in this pivotal role to her SFO debut, singing the music simply yet movingly, climaxing in a poignant monologue to close Act I. Whenever she is present, the viewer focuses on her.

To the impetuous Octavian (a trousers role), Frederica von Stade brings a glorious mezzo voice and regal bearing, tempered by an air of adolescent vulnerability. As young Count Rofrano she is a fairytale silver rose bearer, sure to turn the head of pretty Sophie, charmingly sung and acted by Christine Schaefer in her SFO debut.

Rounding out the core of principals is Eric Halfvarson as Baron Ochs - here played not so much for hopeless rustic boorishness as for a certain basic uncouthness and self-conceit that finds full expression in his heavy-footed waltz. This obnoxious Ochs is not so old as to be an incongruous match for Sophie, and his rude attendants are just scruffy enough.

Notable among the large supporting cast are Michel Senechal and Catherine Keen as the conniving Valzacchi and Annina, Hong-Shen Li as the lyric Italian tenor in the charming levee scene, and David Holloway as the bumbling, social-climbing Faninal.

With the superb Charles Mackerras leading a spirited and energetic interpretation, the final act comes all too soon, with its comic assignation at the inn, the sublime trio for Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie, the tender Mozartian duet for the lovers, and yes - the tiny blackamoor tiptoeing through to retrieve the handkerchief.

The SFO "Rosenkavalier," produced and directed by SFO general director Lotfi Mansouri, is a new production in cooperation with Washington Opera. Sets by Thierry Bosquet, patterned after the original Alfred Roller designs for the work's premiere in 1911, convey a sense of authentic, solid luxury, 18th century style, with compatible costumes by David Walker.

To the Countess Madeleine of "Capriccio," Strauss confided his mature thoughts about opera, and in her final extensive aria she debates the competing merits of music and poetry. Which is superior? Which should she love most? She cannot decide. The widowed countess, gloriously sung by beautiful Kiri Te Kanawa, bears an unmistakable connection to the Marschallin.

In the salon of the countess's chateau near Paris (an "18th century drawing room"), each character makes his point. Madeleine's competing suitors Flamand, a composer (David Kuebler), and Olivier, a poet (Simon Keenlyside), press the relative merits of music and poetry. The theater director La Roche (Victor Braun) defends drama as pre-eminent, while the Countess's brother (Hakan Hagegard) stands up for action.

Meanwhile there are entertaining and sometimes comic diversions by the actress Clairon (Tatiana Troyanos), ballet dancers Shannon Lilly and David Justin, two Italian singers (Craig Estep and Maria Fortuna), a bevy of servants; even the prompter (Michel Senechal) gets into the act.

With its many significant musical references, "Capriccio" requires more than a casual hearing for evaluation. It is downsized Strauss, tuneful, pastel and delicate, beginning with a string sextet rather than overture, and continuing with many 18th century stylistic touches. Especially ingratiating are the frequent accompaniments by musicians on stage. Donald Runnicles conducts with sensitivity, and Stephen Lawless is stage director, with a pretty setting created by Mauro Pagano, costumes by Thierry Bosquet.

"Capriccio" is being taped for European telecast this summer and on America's Bravo network in late 1993. For ticket information from San Francisco Opera, call (415) 864-3330, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday.