THE KENNEDY CENTER'S Eisenhower Theater makes its debut as an opera house with the Washington Opera's new production of Mascagni's bucolic "L'Amico Fritz," which opened there last week.

The hall is a fine compromise between the intimacy of the Terrace Theater, which in past years has housed the Washington Opera's smaller productions, and the opulence of the Opera House itself. At first hearing, the acoustics seem clear and comfortably resonant, and even with a seating capacity that is double the Terrace Theater's, there is a remarkable feeling of intimacy.

The opera itself is without pretensions, a simple story of the awakening of love between a middle-aged landholder and the daughter of one of his tenants, all abetted by the efforts of a match-making Rabbi. The music is pretty and tuneful, the cast small and the action uncomplicated.

Zack Brown's marvelously detailed sets for this production, and Joan Sullivan's lighting provide a correspondingly pretty, bright and cheerful context for the action. Douglas Wager's direction, however, is strangely uneven. The cherry-picking scene, where Fritz and Suzel, the young object of his developing admiration, engage in some 19th-century jollity, has all the spontaneity of warm pudding, but the pantomime and body language that Fritz's drinking buddies Hanezo and Frederico engage in is inspired humor.

Tenor Tonia Di Paolo is a dramatically stolid but vocally adept Fritz. Soprano Katherine Luna sings the role of Suzel with admirable control and power but is not quite convincing as an innocent but emerging young girl. Bass John Fiorito is a fine, somewhat understated but subtle Rabbi David, and Edward Albert and Christopher King are marvelous as the buddies. Cynthia Munzer overdoes the swagger and posturing in her role as the violin-playing gypsy, Beppe, but she sings the part gloriously. Conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg keeps things well paced and beautifully coordinated.

WASHINGTON OPERA -- "L'Amico Fritz." At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater Saturday, Monday, January 1, 5, 7, 9, 11, 15 and 17.