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“PLEASE DON’T DIE!!” That was the subtext of the sustained applause Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg got for her cameo as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Saturday’s opening of Washington National Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment at The Kennedy Center. At least that’s what I wanted to yell, but that would’ve been rude. It was a one-time-only appearance: a spoken, not singing part, in which she looked dangerously frail, swimming in a green period gown, feet dangling from a fancy chair, briefly walking with assistance. A big opera fan, Ginsburg has been a frequent attendee to WNO’s productions over the years, along with her late sparring partner and unlikely buddy Antonin Scalia (sometimes joined by Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan); there’s even a local composer who wrote a whole opera based on their strange relationship, called simply Scalia/Ginsburg.
Gracing the Kennedy Center stage seems to have been one of the things on the justice’s bucket list before, you know, she’s gone and replaced by Justice Barron Trump or Omarosa or Tom Brady or something. The artist known as RBG read her lines in English (the rest of the opera is in French with English surtitles) off of a scroll and a hand fan and into a mic, lines which evoked a different election result from a parallel universe which many in the audience, judging by the enthusiastic response, wished they lived in. (Though not everyone: Newt “HUAC 2.0” Gingrich, another frequent opera-goer, was also in the audience.) Speaking of her noble family, RBG-as-duchess remarked that “its most valorous leaders have been women,” and that the potential daughter-in-law she vets “must have the fortitude to undergo strict scrutiny,” and that “she shall defend the family name against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Later, she requests “certain essential documents,” and asks her aunt, “have you brought your niece’s birth certificate?”
I wasn’t in the mood to laugh, but many in the audience seemed to desperately need one—everyone deals with grief differently. At least it was a solid production, even of a pretty stupid opera, one about an orphan girl who’s adopted by a French military regiment, then reclaimed as a lost daughter by a noble family and made to learn to curtsy and marry against her will. Along with September’s Marriage of Figaro, Washington National Opera is airing out their airhead material this fall, but this time the singing is good, most crucially by the two leads, Lawrence Brownlee and Lisette Oropesa (the production has two rotating casts; this cast returns Nov. 14, 16, 18, and 20). Brownlee, as the daughter’s suitor Tonio, is a standout. With a beautiful, clear tenor, he tackles one of the most famously demanding arias in the repertory, “Ah, mes amis.” With its nine high C’s, it’s the aria that made Pavarotti famous, and Brownlee hit them all with aplomb. Oropesa, playing the titular daughter Marie, is better than she was in Figaro, and both sounds and looks the part as a spunky tomboy. Her vocal role isn’t as acrobatic as Brownlee’s, but she’s equally impressive throwing herself into march routines with a bright, cheery soprano, and at one point does an entertaining take on a reluctant opera student who can’t sing.
Director Robert Longbottom and conductor Christopher Allen both make WNO debuts, and both take straightforward approaches to the original opéra comique (the later opera buffa version swapped the French for Italian and the spoken parts for recitatives). Allen and the orchestra bring out all of Donizetti’s military-march oompahs and weepy melodrama with verve, only occasionally muffled. Zack Brown’s costumes are brightly colored and consistent with the original 19th century setting, while James Noone’s sets employ an oval frame that blocks out much of the stage, both for a military encampment and aristocratic palace.
Washington National Opera’s production of Donizetti’s silly opera, and Ginsburg’s appearance in particular, provided some cathartic humor for an unfunny situation. Nevertheless, being at The Kennedy Center during election week is a reminder how much the marble shoebox can really exemplify the worst of Washington. There’s something sick about a roomful of K Street lobbyists rubbing shoulders with CIA chiefs and future cabinet members in the incoming regime, all applauding politely as the last living bulwark of civil liberties cracks some jokes, before the mass deportations and religious tests begin, and those remaining liberties are swept away in the coming cataclysm.
The production continues through Sunday, November 20 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $45 – $315.