In trying to write about the opening night of Washington National Opera’s energetic and satisfyingly entertaining production of Donizetti’s operetta-like “The Daughter of the Regiment,” it’s hard to ignore, not so much the elephant in the room, but rather the Supreme Court Justice on the stage.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrived onstage after intermission and after a first act in which director Robert Longbottom, a Broadway veteran tackling his first opera — not to mention the dynamic duo of tenor Lawrence Brownlee and soprano Lisette Oropesa — had already set a high-spirited, champagne-with-bonbons pace.
Along came Ginsburg, a noted and quite literally active opera buff, to take on the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp, the steely woman who decides whether the heroine Marie, who was raised by the members of a French army regiment and discovered to be an heiress, is fit to take on such high status.
The moment Ginsburg, small but imposing, started in on the qualifications of a ruler, actually the moment she was spied on stage in the second act, the night took on aspects of a Democratic Party grief-assuaging event, in which many in the audience cheered Ginsberg, known as part of a quartet of liberal justices on the court. Not only did Ginsburg display a deadpan gift for comedic timing — she absolutely killed the pronunciation of Krakenthorp, giving sound to every consonant and adding a few — but she pointedly exposed the political echo in lines like “she must have a proper birth certificate” and that she must have “an open but not empty mind.”
Her appearance was all the more delicious given the presence in the audience of another opera buff, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said to be in the running for Secretary of State in the Trump administration.
“I guess that made the liberals happy,” one audience member said afterward. It certainly was a Saturday night balm, of which there was more on Saturday Night Live, when the disappointed Hillary voters could hear Kate McKinnon portraying Hillary singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and comedian Dave Chappelle offering the tonic that he “would give Donald Trump a chance if he gives us a chance.”
At the opera, of course, it’s still the opera that counts, and, while Ginsburg got a roaring ovation at show’s end, that intrusion of politics — it is Washington, D.C. after all — did not take much energy out of the production. And “The Daughter of the Regiment,” while it has its operetta-like aspects in terms of its convoluted and improbable plot and those constantly forming and reforming Napoleonic red and blue uniformed marchers, is still a vehicle about grand, tricky, rousing, beautiful music, Donizetti not Rudolf Friml.
To be brief, the plot concerns an almost tomboyish young girl named Marie, an abandoned orphan who was found and raised by an entire regiment of French soldiers. Her guardians are overprotective with love, and have managed to raise her as a kind of camp mascot, who marches off to war with them. The mystery of her parentage turns out to involve an aunt who — voila and surprise — is a countess (and may be even closer than that).
Then there’s the fact that Marie is now moving into womanhood, which is to say she is fetching and pretty, and the object of affection for Tonio, who is smitten instantly and joins the regiment to be near her. This turns out to be a mistake, even though Marie too is smitten with him. Complications ensue, as Marie is returned to her ancestral home and the regiment follows.
While the plot lines are silly, Kevin Brownlee as Tonio and Lisette Oropesa are so engaging that the audience ends up invested in the outcome of their fate and their romance, an outcome that is theatrically rigged and pleasing — unlike the outcome of an election which was not rigged, but not so pleasing to some either.
In opera land, you announce yourself and your love by singing gloriously, by having presence and range seemingly beyond Superman’s powers, as is the case with Brownlee, who has an aria — “Ah! mes amis” — that features nine high Cs, the singing equivalent of tossing a no-hitter with 27 strikeouts and having the hold-your-note hang time of Michael Jordan.
Oropesa, who dominated the recent WNO production of “The Marriage of Figaro” as Suzanna, does so again as the foundling Marie, displaying not only marvelous, trilling and thrilling singing chops, but also a gamine comedic touch that reminds one of silent-movie clowns. She’s athletic and not afraid of slapstick, and she even has to pretend to sing badly, always a neat trick for a superb singer.
The comparison with “Figaro” is apt by way of contrast. “Regiment” is a kind of wholesome Silly-Putty mirror to “Figaro,” with its philandering count and conniving aristocrats. “Regiment” has a kind of bravura tempo, choreographed such that groups and individuals are always moving about, much in the manner of a Broadway musical, which is the director’s natural milieu.
“The Daughter of the Regiment” continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Nov. 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20. Brownlee will share the role of Tonio with Andrew Stenson and Oropesa will perform Marie, as will be Andriana Chuchman. By the way, Justice Ginsburg will not be in any of the remaining performances; the Duchess of Krakenthorp will be portrayed by Cindy Gold.