On Saturday night, the Washington National Opera not only breached the fourth wall, they set it on fire.
Call it the most unlikely corner in which to find a defiant comment on what just happened in our national election, but even the most austere artistic genre had something to say about November 8. Clever, subtle, but in no way ambiguous, it came in the form of a very special (and prolonged) cameo in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment: liberal icon and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Initially hidden in an enormous wingback chair, it was quite the moment when she was turned, slowly, to face the packed opera house. It is no cliché to say that the crowd went wild. But the real fireworks came when — in the speaking role of the demanding Duchess of Krakenthorp — Ginsburg began listing the qualities required in a bride for her son. Adapted by Ginsburg (and this role is often flavored by the player), it is an unapologetic ode to women as leaders — no doubt, one in particular. The applause and laughter was so clamorous, some of her words were drowned out, but the intent was clear.
The joyously rebellious dicta of the Notorious RBG aside, there was also something exceedingly touching in the timing of this special night. In between her piquant lines, the diminutive, rather fragile-looking justice spent a fair amount of time on stage up close and personal with the singers and action. It was the best seat in the house and — though it was eclipsed by the political overtones — it was nevertheless a beautiful gift from Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and Director Robert Longbottom to one of the WNO’s greatest fans.
But even if Justice Ginsburg will not be returning for the remainder of the run, rest assured that there is more than enough reason to make The Daughter of the Regiment () your personal evening of escapism from all that ails, political or otherwise.
First there are the leads. Grabbing every scene by the short and curlies is an insuppressible Lisette Oropesa, singing her Marie with technical fabulousness and beautifully-toned buoyancy. If she veers a tad close to the chronically-cheerful tradition of Julie Andrews, she offsets it with some great physical comedy. Making a superb vocal match with Oropesa, Lawrence Brownlee brings the house down with a gorgeous, rafter-reaching tenor and plenty of crowd-pleasing bravado. It hardly matters that his Tonio is more like a brother than lover to tomboy Marie — they are aurally, if not romantically, electric.
Bookending the action are two strong and seasoned presences. Playing foil to Oropesa’s Marie is Kevin Burdette as Sulpice, the French sergeant who (along with the entire regiment) adopted her as an abandoned baby. Burdette does a great job clowning with Marie — though not quite a Dick Van Dyke, he’s got the idea. At the other end of the plot, Deborah Nansteel makes for a charismatic Marquise of Berkenfield, the local aristocrat with a secret. If Nansteel never quite delivers on the comic potential in the role, she certainly sings with pleasing richness and, when required, sorrow. Keeping to the lively feel, Timothy J. Bruno delivers an excitable Hortensius, the Marquise’s right-hand man.
Of course, being a largely comic opera featuring the regiment that has raised the firebrand Marie, there is no doubt that much of any production will hinge on what and how much you can get out of the male chorus. With the WNO, it is always 110 percent. Looking like they are thoroughly enjoying themselves, the chorus aces the clever choreography and wit of director Longbottom and are a joy to watch as they work the visually-clever marches and the mimes. Throw in the scampering antics of Oropesa’s Marie and this is opera that shows musical theater how it’s done.
Thus, an evening of entertainment and superb singing, and a much-needed respite from tumultuous times.
The Daughter of the Regiment runs to Sunday, Nov. 20. Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $45 to $315. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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