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TO APRIL 25
If Mefistofele and his blistery red demons occupied prime Kennedy Center seats near nubile Rhine maidens twirling gold rings, you might consider it a sign of the Gotterdammerung. Fear not, it’s just the mechanized audience of San Francisco artist David Beck’s L’Opera, a 6-and-a-half-foot-tall lacquered operahouse shell teeming with 207 hand-carved wooden figures out for a night on the town. Beck’s barking audience, powered by electric motors churning rods and spindles like an 18th-century toy, is peopled with the characters of classic opera: the rowdy, helmet-clad Teutons from Wagner’s Ring sit alongside Turandot’s precious Imperial Chinese princesses. In the loges above, unruffled couples raise bejeweled opera glasses to their eyes with gloved hands. They’ve come out to see a production of Verdi’s Aida, replete with beefy elephants swishing their trunks in the Thebian desert and an orchestra packed with maudlin clowns from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Beck spent five years carving figures, inlaying columns with crushed eggshells, and stringing crystalline beads for the house’s elaborate chandelier. The architectural styles manifest on the opera’s shell—-modeled loosely on Garnier’s 19th-century beaux-arts Paris Opera and imprinted with an amalgam of Gothic, Classical, and Moorish styles—-are as diverse as the characters in Beck’s appreciative audience. And as in any good production, when L’Opera’s motor turns off, the red velvet curtain lowers and the footlights go black. To April 25 at the National Museum of American Art, 8th & G Sts. NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Jessica Dawson)