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He has arrived. Surrounded by managers and spin doctors talking giddily of new beginnings, and with the international press breathing down his neck, he’ll need to please a lot of finicky and conflicting tastes.

I’m not talking about Bill Clinton—another charismatic performer walking the tightrope between innovation and compromise—but Placido Domingo. The Ubertenor, new top man at Washington Opera, inherits a company fat and well fed, and anxious to expand into its downtown digs without ruffling too many feathers along the way. Playing his part in the process, Domingo is keeping audiences comfy with a fresh but safely accessible repertoire, most obviously in his inaugural production of A. Carlos Gomes’ Il Guarany.

Starting his tenure with an unfamiliar opera by an unfamiliar composer might seem a risky opening gambit, but Domingo is savvy enough to know that Washington’s notion of “daring” lies closer to the last turn-of-the-last-century’s than the next one’s. Il Guarany is so full of gracefully turned vocal lines and Verdian hooks it couldn’t fail to please a traditionalist subscriber base. Even more hypeworthy is Domingo’s presence in the title role. Packaged and repackaged around its star, this production has already appeared on stage in Bonn and on CD for Sony Classics. Its arrival in D.C., riding the PR juggernaut of its previous incarnations, might as well be called Placido: The ’96 Guarany Tour. So for all the Brave New Opera hoopla, the new chief is just following the oldest of operatic axioms: Nothing succeeds like regress.

Underneath all the fancy wrapping paper is a composer worth knowing, especially in this centennial year of his death. Brazilian-born and part Guarani Indian himself, Gomes took La Scala by storm in the 1870s, counting Verdi among his supporters. The Guarany score flirts with everything from Tchaikovsky to French ballet to Wagnerian leitmotif, but always the sound of middle-period Verdi dominates. The swaggering baritone solos set against bouncing choruses, limpid coloratura, long stretches of a cappella ensemble, tense staccato phrases giving way to soaring cantabile melody—the devices may be by-the-book, Italian mainstream, but the older composer’s stylistic fingerprints are all over them. But Gomes is also his own man, his considerable melodic gifts taking enchantingly unexpected turns, his sense of orchestral color holding a few surprises along the way. With early, lesser works of Verdi (not to mention Boito, and minor verismo composers) being produced with more frequency on world stages, there’s no musical reason Guarany should not join the active repertoire.

Unfortunately, as with last season’s musically distinguished, textually challenged Luisa Miller, Il Guarany is hobbled by a singularly boneheaded libretto. If the recounting in the press materials of Alencar’s Brazilian potboiler, O Guarani, is an accurate gauge, the novel sounds like fair game for full grand-opera treatment. Following 16th-century colonial conflicts near Rio de Janeiro among Portuguese settlers, Guarani Indians, rebellious silver miners, and the cannibalistic Aimore tribe, the story must have appealed greatly to Gomes, whose own struggles with European assimilation and a “noble savage” public image bore parallels to those of the novel’s central Indian character, Pery. But librettists Scalvini and d’Ormeville apparently removed anything emotionally complex or morally ambiguous in the novel, ignored its fantastic imagery, and dropped important connective tissue from the plot. The resulting claptrap had the opening night audience laughing almost steadily by Act 4.

What’s a stage director to do with material that aims so low so consistently? Certainly not what this one did. The promising update to Gomes’ time-period really goes nowhere, and the quaint, deliberately stagey choral tableaux look uncomfortably like the rest of the evening’s stand-and-belt posing. A couple of the ideas work—the heroine playing out her romantic fantasies on a marionette stage, mosquito netting used to mysteriously scrim certain characters—but they outstay their effectiveness. Otherwise, the alternately melodramatic and lead-footed staging turns even the libretto’s few cogent moments into nonsense.

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Now here’s the shocker: The director is Werner Herzog, one of the finest, arguably the most visionary, of contemporary German filmmakers. Skill in one medium doesn’t necessarily translate to another, but you’d expect to see here something of Herzog’s idiosyncratic eye and go-for-broke intensity (remember the entire cast of Heart of Glass performing under hypnosis?), particularly when the obsessive quest to bring opera to the Brazilian rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, in retrospect, looks to be pretty good homework for Guarany’s tropical strangeness. Only Pery’s haunting, spirit-led journey during the break between Acts 3 and 4, accompanied only by ambient sounds of the rainforest, hints at Herzog’s genius for blending surreal imagery and potent emotion. But then, it’s the one moment he’s freed from both intractable text and reactionary score.

The score, of course, is the main reason for doing Guarany, and lovers of fine singing will not be disappointed. Domingo was in sterling form on opening night, perhaps conserving the voice a little in Act 1, but opening out to typically sweet, full-toned glory immediately after. He seemed dramatically involved as Pery, though the staging asked little of this superior singing-actor beyond voguing in feathers. (Before the opera, I couldn’t picture Domingo in full Indian dress; after three-and-a-half hours of those damn yellow plumes, I’m finding it hard imagining him in a coat and tie.) The rest of the cast—essentially the recording, live onstage—sounded especially good in the flesh, particularly the increasingly secure and rich-toned Veronica Villarroel. This spinto soprano, with her poignantly dark, covered lower register, gleaming high notes, and agile coloratura, improved on an already impressive debut here in Luisa Miller. And the legato phrasing and burnished tone of baritone Carlos Alvarez and bass Hao Jiang Tian were welcome in a score so generous to the lower voices. Conductor John Neschling kept the whole package neatly tied, the orchestra sounding as if it has been playing this score for years.

The Washington Opera is celebrating another centennial—that of La Boheme’s 1896 premiere—and seeing the company’s production right on the heels of Il Guarany was like a trip to the Bizarro World, with everything the opposite of what we expect. Where Gomes’ inanely scripted, backward-looking, and moralistic “number” opera had just trod the boards, here now was Puccini’s evergreen tale of free-loving bohemians: so seamlessly composed, so natural in its conversational rise and fall, so alive to the ways heartache can overcome the most exuberant high spirits in a moment, that its world is instantly, touchingly recognizable. And where the earlier opera needed a starry array of voices to rescue it from its own cheesy theatrics and overwrought foliage, Boheme turned loose a cast of dramatically savvy young singers on one of the handsomest, most clear-headed productions in the company’s repertoire.

Zack Brown has never been anyone’s idea of a “next wave” designer, but given his more traditional aesthetic, this Boheme is a masterpiece. What other production has reconciled the need to tell an intimate story and the need to fill a huge opera house stage, and done it with such focus and seductive beauty (made all the more evocative by Joan Sullivan’s lights)? And who better to stage the piece than that most neo-Puccinian of opera composer/librettists, Gian Carlo Menotti? He has proved his directorial chops on numerous outings with the Washington Opera, but nowhere more so than in this 1981 production, which, though remounted by other directors since, has Menotti himself at the helm this time around. His nuanced handling of both the wry wit and death-haunted romance in Illica and Giacosa’s wonderful libretto and his keen eye for behavioral detail make this an engagingly lifelike ensemble drama that yields nothing to the kitchen-sink relevance of Rent.

The poet Rodolfo and Mimi, the tubercular seamstress who hacks her way into his heart, have seen a hundred years of illustrious interpreters, and their threadbare shoes are daunting ones to fill. If Vincenzo La Scola can’t erase memories of the Great Tenors of the Century, he’s certainly one of the few who encompasses all the role’s demands. Boyish and personable on stage, his acting is natural (no tenorial posturing here), his phrasing is sensitive to the long line in Puccinian melody, and his voice is one of lyrical beauty, but with enough heft to cut through the composer’s more densely scored pages. I suspect he was under the weather on opening night, as his high notes early on sounded strained and as the evening wore on began to crumble altogether—a problem not hinted at on some impressive recent recordings.

Like La Scola, Daniela Dessi’s Mimi is her Washington debut role. Perhaps her cooler emotional profile and more mature beauty make her recede a bit next to this Rodolfo, but the carrying power and flexibility of her voice count for much. The sound has a little more edge to it than some might like in this role, but it’s also big and full-bodied, and has the effect of painting her less as an easy victim than a strong player in the drama. Rodolfo’s garretmates are improbably well-scrubbed and coiffed, and nattily dressed to boot, but then, so is the opera. More significantly, these lower voices are once again terrifically cast. Jeffrey Black is a predictably hale and hearty Marcello, Stefano Palatchi is sonorous as Colline, and Mark Oswald makes far more of Schaunard than most singers do in this second-banana baritone role. Oxana Arkaeva may have less vocal allure than her fellow principals, but I can’t remember a more beautiful Musetta, or one who captivates with such sly understatement and so little recourse to Opera 101 shtick.

Some beautiful sounds emanate from the orchestra as well, thanks to Daniel Oren’s affectionate and subtle handling of the score. Less welcome is his grunting, sniffling, crouching, leaping, and mannered gesticulating on the podium. It’s hard to say whether carrying on like Bernstein actually works—for anyone other than Bernstein—in helping musicians do their work. But when the show on stage is so damn good, a sideshow in the pit is pretty tough to take.

La Boheme tells us what we already know: The Washington Opera does its best work on the naturalistic end of the repertoire spectrum. Now if Domingo can improve on the company’s track record in the mid- and late 19th century—some particularly dire stagings of Verdi are still all too fresh in mind—he may truly be able to remake this company.

Note: In the Nov. 21 and 24 performances of La Boheme, Mimi and Rodolfo will be sung by Hasmik Papian and Antonio Lotti. Alan Nathan conducts the opera on Nov. 27 and 30.