Italy is in the process of opening a swank new embassy--in Florentine style, they assure us--on Massachusetts Avenue. For now, however, the cultural offices are still in a faceless professional building closer to the center of town. It is not an ideal space for a concert.

On Monday evening, to celebrate the opening of a photography exhibition, they made do with what digs they have, rented a clangorous Steinway piano and presented the young mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux in a brief recital of songs and arias. Hemmed in by low ceilings and glared at by fluorescent lights, the photographs--devoted to the great 19th-century opera houses of north-central Italy--were enticing but remote. Genaux stood before a luxuriant image of the theater in Verdi's beloved town of Busseto. Listen to the voice (a very fine one) and imagine hearing it in a small jewel-box theater encrusted with gesso molding; then look at the institutional wall-to-wall and despair.

Genaux is a mezzo-soprano from Alaska in full, spring bloom of a growing operatic career. She has appeared several times in this area, most recently in a production of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" at the Baltimore Opera. In February, she will appear in the Washington Opera production of Handel's "Julius Caesar." These two roles define her strengths: She is naturally suited to the baroque and bel canto styles, with a voice that has in it both the duskiness of twilight and the freshness of morning. Her career, which got rolling in Pittsburgh, is making her travel. Her recording of Rossini songs and arias has received strong marks from Opera News.

Despite having come straight from the first "Caesar" rehearsal at the opera, Genaux's voice was unstrained, untaxed and easily under control. Neither the day's fatigue nor her increasing professional obligations were apparent.

It was a short recital. Genaux's best performances came in three Rossini songs she has recently recorded and in an encore, "Cruda sorte!" from the same composer's opera "L'Italiana in Algeri." The songs--(the "Ariette Espagnole")--require a voice as sultry as Marilyn Horne's bottom range and a sense of style as easy and feline as soprano Victoria de los Angeles'. Genaux bit into the meatiest, most seductive part of her voice, a sound that flirts with and insinuates itself into the ear. The aria demonstrated the fluency of her technique and an ability to traverse fast passages with ease.

A last-minute substitution of pianists was the performance's only regret. Marie-France Lefebvre gallantly filled in with little time to prepare or rehearse, but it showed from time to time, especially in works by Vivaldi and Handel. No good deed goes unpunished.