The Metropolitan Opera presented a respectable "La Bohe me" at the Kennedy Center Saturday afternoon that should have been considerably better. It could have been better too, with just a little more care from conductor Eugene Kohn.

The cast was not bad, and the fragile Mimi of Catherine Malfitano was a joy to hear and to behold. Her voice is a light one, but it has a distinctive, shimmering timbre -- especially at the top, where the focus is also crystal-clear. She can color a phrase very sensitively. She can also act, and she has a beautiful face that glows with the delicate vulnerability that is the essence of the sweet, and doomed, Mimi. The death scene, especially, was fluently phrased and acted in this Franco Zeffirelli production -- refeshingly free of the overheated melodrama that sometimes afflicts the role.

In short, Malfitano was just right. Except for one thing. Conductor Kohn seemed set on preventing the audience from hearing her. The latter, cantabile section of that most famous of arias, "Mi chiamano Mimi," was all but inaudible. And in the second act at the Cafe' Momus, except for Mimi's initial exchanges with Rodolfo, I could not hear a single note Malfitano sang. Kohn was allowing the brass especially to play so loudly, even when just in supportive chords, that even should Malfitano have forced her voice, which she wisely chose not to do, she might not have been heard over the din. And the whole dynamic level of the otherwise excellent orchestra was out of whack.

If "La Bohe me" were a Liszt tone poem with vocal obbligato, Kohn's heavy-handed approach might have been defensible. But this is one of the most lyric of operas, and one that Puccini orchestrated with great skill in balancing voices and instruments. In this performance, though, even the large voice of Ermanno Mauro (as Rodolfo) was covered by fortissimos that were supposed to be fortes, and so on.

Unfortunately, the Met does not have acoustical rehearsals on tour, making this sort of thing more likely to happen. But it doesn't seem to be a problem when the man on the podium is a James Levine or a Jeffrey Tate.

In addition, Kohn drove "Bohe me" relentlessly. There was no dallying with the wit in the first two acts. And the whole tender side of "Bohe me," its most eloquent dimension, was snuffed out, except for the last 15 minutes, when the conductor finally let the music start to breathe, and the singers to be heard when singing softly.

Other persuasive performances included Myra Merritt as a spicy Musetta; Julien Robbins as a mellow Colline (it was a nice "Coat Song"); Brent Ellis as a heavy but still appealing Marcello. The last act duet of Marcello and Rodolfo went well once they got together.

Rodolfo is a lyric tenor role, and there was just nothing very lyric about Mauro. The voice is thick and roughly colored, making not at all a good pairing with the allure of Malfitano. Nor is he an actor of imagination.

With repeated changes of cast and conductor, a lot of the zip is gone from Zeffirelli's production of this most familiar of operas. Much of the stage business now seems rushed and confused by comparison with the way it was when the Met brought it here two years ago -- despite Malfitano's clear superiority as Mimi. The Met has not been able to keep it as fresh as Gian Carlo Menotti's staging of "La Bohe me" for the Washington Opera, which appeared at the same time.

At $50 a seat in the orchestra, the listeners deserved more.