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The next time you hear a stage director suggest that successful productions are 90 percent good casting, believe it. Want proof? Head on down to the Washington Opera’s new production of La Boheme, which affords audiences the chance to compare two different casts, under two different conductors, in the same staging of Puccini’s ceaselessly popular hit.

You’d think a traditional mounting of Boheme—which this one is, in spades—wouldn’t change a whole helluva lot when one set of bohemians is traded out for another, right? Wrong. Experiencing both casts provides an object lesson in the protean nature of putting an opera on the stage. The distinction between the work of director Sandra Bernhard (no, not that one) and the creative input of individual singers is often hard to discern here. Were some of Bernhard’s interpretive ideas, for instance, embraced by one cast and rejected by the other? Or did she resculpt blocking and emotional tone to suit the contrasting personalities of her ensembles? Even when a bit of staging is identical, its effect can be quite different from one set of singers to the other.

Take the moment early in Act 2 when the opera’s principals converge at Cafe Momus. During Act 1, we’ve watched the lived-in camaraderie among four merrily destitute roommates: the poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the musician Schaunard, and the philosopher Colline. As Act 2 gets under way, Rodolfo’s pals are awaiting him at the cafe; Rodolfo has lagged behind to get some writing done and managed, in those few minutes, to meet and fall in love with Mimi, a tubercular seamstress from a neighboring apartment. So he decides to bring Mimi to the cafe to meet the guys.

With the cast conducted by Giovanni Reggioli, Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline greet Mimi’s arrival with all the enthusiasm of Paul, George, and Ringo the day Yoko showed up. There’s the usual complement of how-ya-doin’ smiles, but they seem tentative and unconvincing. Vladimir Moroz’s Marcello is particularly petulant about the fact that Some Chick is breaking up the artistic brotherhood—his tightly focused baritone and aggressive sibilants only add to the effect. It’s an interesting interpretive choice to make, and one that feels consistent with Moroz’s sympathetic but generally hangdog portrayal elsewhere in the evening.

But wait. Check out the way that same moment plays out under Eugene Kohn’s baton and you’ll wonder whether you’re watching another production, not merely another cast. Kohn’s bohemians are practically bursting their buttons with pride and relief that Rodolfo has finally hooked up with a girlfriend. Shy and mischievous by turns, they treat Mimi as another reason to make merry. And that goes double for Alfredo Daza’s Marcello. A few moments of introspection over his own tortured love life aside, this Marcello is as warm and vibrant as his voice, leaving little doubt that he’ll wind up Mimi’s best friend before long. And this Marcello’s actions in Act 2 make sense in the context of his behavior throughout: His generosity of spirit expresses itself as clearly in his brotherly tenderness toward Mimi in Act 3 as in his horseplay with Rodolfo in Acts 1 and 4.

Each interpretation works in its own way. Which one, should we suppose, has the director’s imprimatur? It’s a tough call to make, and ultimately matters little now that both versions are in the can. Suffice it to say that these two Marcellos occupy very different parts of Paris.

When it comes to the production’s dueling Rodolfos, it might as well be different planets. The Reggioli cast’s Konstyantyn Andreyev is a PR director’s dream: All romantic leading tenors should have his dark good looks and tall, manly build. Andreyev’s got quite a voice on him, too. Virile and ringing, it possesses the kind of flickering vibrato that harks back to voices of two or three generations ago.

Unfortunately, Andreyev’s acting instincts are of a similar vintage. If bad acting’s a crime, this guy’s looking at consecutive life sentences. With zero charisma and even less stage presence, Andreyev wanders the proscenium as if he’d been released from an institution and weren’t sure where he was. You don’t quite believe your eyes when Mimi collapses unconscious in Act 1 and Andreyev’s Rodolfo just stands there staring at her as if she were a sack of potatoes. Then along comes Act 3: Mimi faints anew—in the friggin’ snow this time—and, once again, our hero doesn’t move a muscle. To be fair, Andreyev makes Rodolfo’s discovery of Mimi’s death genuinely affecting—but given that that moment takes place in the final 30 seconds of the opera, it’s a little late to undo the two hours of flat, counterintuitive work that’s led up to it.

Maybe Andreyev should use one of his nights off to watch the Kohn cast’s Rodolfo, Aquiles Machado. Right from his first lines, Machado uses his infectious smile and emotional openness to place the character in the center of the action, where he belongs. Physically, alas, he’s not everyone’s idea of a Rodolfo: Diminutive and round-faced, cute rather than dashing, he plays up the teddy-bear thing with almost too much zeal. Vocally, however, Machado has nothing to fear from comparisons with Andreyev. Machado’s is the brighter, sweeter instrument, with more ping and carrying power and a Latin fire that flares satisfyingly at the score’s big emotional moments. He gets this Boheme where it needs to go.

So does Virginia Tola’s captivating Mimi. Exasperatingly, she’s marooned in the Reggioli cast with Andreyev; the competent but unexceptional Eugenia Garza partners Machado in the Kohn cast. Garza has the requisite vocal weight and good looks for the role. But her voice is a little unwieldy, with patches that sound dried out, and an edgy, already widening vibrato prominent in the upper register. Tola’s soprano, by contrast, is even from top to bottom, with enough punch to send it soaring into the house but enough honey in the tone to make Mimi’s big Act 3 aria a memorable event. Whereas Garza’s sunnier, more overtly coquettish Mimi slips unobtrusively among the animated, heart-on-the-sleeve bohemians surrounding her, Tola becomes the opera’s focal point, the beating heart of her more sober cast.

That’s not to say the Reggioli crew doesn’t have some yuks onstage. In fact, there’s little to choose between the Schaunards of baritones Malcolm MacKenzie (Kohn) and Andrey Grigoriev (Reggioli), or between the Collines of basses Orlin Anastassov (Kohn) and Vitalij Kowaljow (Reggioli). All are fine, forthright singers who make Bernhard’s sequences of comic business entertaining and natural-looking. And as Marcello’s lovable ho of a girlfriend, Musetta, Reggioli’s Elena de la Merced and Kohn’s Kelly Cae Hogan are interchangeable. Both have bright and clean lyric-soprano voices of some heft, both create their requisite mayhem at Cafe Momus with more efficiency than kittenish allure, and both appear older and wiser than the ensembles surrounding them.

But just as Marcello is first among equals in the bohemians’ little collective—Rodolfo is too moony and love-struck for most of the opera to throw himself quite so wholeheartedly into their bachelor hijinks—the singers who play him set the tone for the rest of the boys. Moroz is wistful where Daza is passionate, wryly deadpan where Daza is clownish, and his group follows suit with subtler, less high-octane playing of the comedy. Daza, on the other hand, renders the painter’s emotions so accessible and immediate (with some intermittent bouts of big-face acting a small price to pay) that both the supporting bohemians and the audience get caught up in his energy field.

If only Reggioli demonstrated similar solidarity with his actors. Granted, the lapses in synchronization between pit and stage when Andreyev is singing appear to rest squarely with the tenor, who can’t seem to avert his eyes from the conductor without losing the beat. But, at least at the performance I heard, Reggioli was one or two wince-inducing beats out of sync with the chorus on more than one occasion. That said, Reggioli is a subtler colorist than Kohn, his phrasing more expansive and affectionate. But no matter: Kohn has the shape and the sweep of this score in his bones, and he brings a discipline and refulgent string tone to the work that leave his colleague in the dust.

The physical production, from the San Francisco Opera, is more of a problem. Michael Yeargan is a designer with a damned impressive international portfolio, but his Boheme sets seem more a cost-conscious retread of Franco Zeffirelli’s (in)famous Met production than an original take on Puccini’s work. Love ’em or hate ’em, the Big Z’s designs made canny use of the sprawling Met stage, from the cutaway garret revealed within a cityscape of Parisian rooftops to the cafe that seemed to bleed into the teeming Latin Quarter to the towering wrought-iron perimeter fence that stood out starkly against the staging’s blustering snowstorm. Nearly all of that reappears here, reduced in scale but laid out in remarkably similar ground plans. It’s a poor fit in the smaller confines of the Kennedy Center Opera House, and the treatment of detail throughout falls uneasily between straight naturalism and charcoal-sketch stylization, ultimately succeeding at neither.

Bernhard navigates the sets with consistent competence—and often much more than that. Her storytelling is clear, with fluid blocking (the transition from Act 1’s garret to Act 2’s cafe is very successfully handled) and schtick that transcends its been-there-staged-that familiarity through sheer liveliness. What her production would look like with a single cast of good singing actors is impossible to determine. But whatever conquests or capitulations characterized the rehearsal process, and whoever singly or collectively can claim credit for the work being seen onstage, the fact is, there are two distinct and valid productions of La Boheme coexisting at the KenCen. CP