Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opera debut brings relevance to WNO

By Anne Midgette November 13, 2016 

To some of us, opera is always relevant, but even we have to admit that staging a piece of 19th-century fluff about a young woman adopted and raised by a regiment of soldiers is something of a stretch. Making it even harder are today’s trends toward naturalistic acting and training singers to be good colleagues and good sports — both things that essentially undermine the kind of overblown, over-the-top performances that can make such a thing come to life.

Fortunately, the Washington National Opera’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” had Ruth Bader Ginsburg up its sleeve. The Supreme Court justice made her official opera debut on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center — after a scattering of supernumerary roles in the past — as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, a small spoken part. 

In a fraught postelection week, the mere sight of Ginsburg was enough to spark a prolonged ovation. But Ginsburg’s dialogue — read in English, into a body mic — was also retooled to fit the speaker and this historic moment, even if that moment might not have been quite what WNO expected when the lines were written. Talking about the illustrious past of the House of Krakenthorp (a word she delivered with a little sarcastic twist that got funnier each time she said it), she said its best members had been “persons with open but not empty minds,” and added, “Is it any wonder that its most valorous leaders have been women?” 

The house roared. It roared at that line; it roared when she said she needed to see the birth certificate of the heroine, Marie, before she could approve her; it roared when she turned, at Marie’s joyful embrace of her future husband Tonio, and said, “Quel scandale!” with relish; and it roared with love at the curtain call, which she took after all the other performers — dropping, as she did so, a most elegant little curtsy. 

Ginsburg is a well-known opera lover and beloved of the audience (which also included another WNO political regular, Newt Gingrich), and everyone knew she would be among the evening’s highlights. But having her steal the show, to such a degree, is arguably a problem. Relevance like this can blow a hole in the slender tissue of the entertainment that surrounds it. But it might not make such a disproportionate impact if you had real powerhouse performances in the other roles. 

WNO did as well as you can do these days, especially with Lawrence Brownlee, the wonderful lyric tenor who tossed off the nine high C’s of Tonio’s aria “Ah! mes amis” as if they were no trouble at all. Brownlee’s voice is growing slightly darker with time; where once it was strikingly sweet, now it rings with virility, and his pleasant stage manner conveys sweetness aplenty. Lisette Oropesa, who has kept busy at WNO this fall — she was Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro” that opened the season — had some really lovely moments as Marie and threw herself into energetic acting, to the extent of deliberately singing badly in a scene in which her newly discovered birth mother, the Marquise of Birkenfeld (Deborah Nansteel, delightful and robust of voice) is having her taught singing and dancing to prepare her for polite society.

All of this was lovely and certainly provides a fine musical distraction from the real world in Robert Longbottom’s straightforward, innocuous, not-too-hammy production. Kevin Burdette, as the officer Sulpice, was the performer who seemed most to embrace the buffo tradition, enjoying snappily marching around the stage and offering a voice a couple of sizes larger than the others’. And the whole thing was supported by vital conducting by Christopher Allen, as well as an orchestra still bearing traces of its Wagner triumph last spring in the solid brass solos in the overture. It adds up to a pretty, polished evening. 

Whether “The Daughter of the Regiment” should be played naturalistically is a separate debate. But this evening did make me think that those who say that opera singers ought to look more like the characters they are supposed to be playing may be missing the mark. Brownlee and Oropesa certainly make a visually more convincing pair of naive young lovers than, say, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland, who were vocally glorious but visually a bit ridiculous. That ridiculousness, though, was actually part of the fun, as we realize when it’s not there. It’s not just a question of prioritizing music over acting; it’s that bad acting, or mismatched casting, actually enhanced the entertainment value. That particular kind of larger-than-life buffoonery, though, has been bred right out of opera. So it remains to Ginsburg to bring in the laughs — or remained to her, since, alas, her appearance was a one-off. The role will be taken by Cindy Gold in the rest of the performances (through Nov. 20). This lighthearted cream puff of a piece will still be a welcome diversion.

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