Daughter of the Regiment at Washington National Opera (review)

November 14, 2016 by Dante Atkins 

Whenever I attend an opera, I always try to ask myself, “if this were the first opera I were seeing, would I enjoy this performance?” After a quarter-century of seeing them, sometimes that first time perspective can be hard to find. But the Washington National Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment (Daughter of the Regiment) removes any question: it’s such an unqualified success that it will be sure to delight the most experienced connoisseur and the first-time viewer.

The subject matter certainly helps. Daughter of the Regiment is a short, lighthearted affair about a foundling girl, raised by a military regiment, who turns out to be nobility and almost resigns herself to a loveless marriage before everything turns out for the best in the end. It has less heaviness and drama than the usual stereotype, but that doesn’t make the execution any less wonderful. The sets are elegant, bright, and beautiful, and director Robert Longbottom deserves special plaudits for delighting the opening night audience with an entertaining choreography that takes thematic elements from musical theater and repurposes them in an unexpected way.

All the vocal performances impress, but none more so than Lisette Oropesa as Marie, the title character. Oropesa is in complete command throughout. Her coloratura is both delicate and precise, and equally as impressive, she makes the high notes demanded by the role seem easy. While it’s hard to point to any particular moment, her rendition of “Par le Rang”—one of the better known arias from this opera—was strikingly effortless and fluid. And her virtuosity is matched only by the joy she brings to the role with her acting and movement.

Oropesa’s co-star Lawrence Brownlee acquits himself no less well as Tonio, Marie’s nearly ill-fated lover. A tenor’s performance in the role is often judged by his execution of “Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête,” an aria toward the end of the first act where Tonio celebrates joining the regiment simply to be closer to Marie. The aria includes multiple high C’s, a note on the outside edge of the traditional tenor vocal range. On opening night, Brownlee was more than up to the task, and received an ovation worthy of his performance.

The supporting roles also deserve a mention. Kevin Burnette’s performance as Sulpice is funny, enthralling, and a joy to watch, and the same goes for Debora Nansteel’s exaggeratedly aristocratic turn as the Marquise. And of course, no mention of the supporting roles would be complete without giving a nod to Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, performing the role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp on opening night.

The Duchess of Krakenthorp is a brief speaking role whose words are often customized to reflect particular aspects of the performance or even the particular performer. Justice Ginsburg delighted the audience by customizing her lines to make references to Supreme Court doctrine, and even cited her own famous recent dissent from the decision that eroded the Voting Rights Act. Not even a week past a contentious election that may well have been influenced by that decision, it was a quote that resonated strongly with the very knowledgeable Washington audience.

But though you may not be treated to a performance by Justice Ginsburg, you should definitely treat yourself to a subsequent performance during this run. It’s rare to see so complete a production, and you shouldn’t miss it.