WASHINGTON, November 15, 2016 – Opening for an all-too-brief run this Saturday past, the Washington National Opera’s (WNO’s) sprightly new production of Donizetti’s comic opera, “The Daughter of the Regiment” (“La fille du régiment”), was lighter than air and as fun as freshly-spun cotton candy. Better yet, it was marvelously well-sung and enthusiastically presented by a cast of singers that seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the opening night audience was enjoying their performance.
For better or worse, the opening night performance also featured an extended cameo by that well-known WNO fan, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dropped by for one night only to fill the speaking-only role of the incredibly condescending Duchess of Krakenthorp.
While Justice Ginsburg’s opening-night-only appearance will likely garner most of the headlines for this production, it’s the chemistry between the two leads—soprano Lisette Oropesa as Marie and tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Tonio—that transform this show into a genuine delight.
Set in the early 1800s, this opera’s plot revolves around the spunky, young Marie, who, we learn, was discovered as an abandoned infant by a regiment of French soldiers. They decide to adopt Marie and raise her themselves as a collective “daddy,” with Captain Sulpice (bass Kevin Burdette) serving as Dad-in-Chief.
As she grows older, Marie naturally evolves into the regiment’s mascot and housemother, traveling along with them from battle to battle and, not surprisingly, becoming something of a soldier herself.
While on a Napoleonic mission of conquest, Marie’s regiment travels through a border village where she is saved by—and falls in love with—a local resident named Tonio. But simultaneously, she and the regiment learn she’s the natural daughter of the town’s patron family, currently presided over by the Marquise of Bergenfield (mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel).
The Duchess promptly tries to transform tomboy Marie into an elegant and eligible young lady, the better to arrange her marriage to another noble, but the usual complications ensue.
WNO’s new production, crafted by set designer James Noone and deftly directed by Robert Longbottom, was quite charming, imagining the action as unfolding inside a pair of faux shadow-box settings, the first a mountainous pine-forest scene and the second a slightly stuffy manor house hall. Zach Brown’s nifty costuming added the appropriate period touch. Sung in French, this production follows the more recent tradition of replacing recitatives with presumably original spoken dialogue, articulated quite well by this cast.
Lisette Oropesa, whose star shone brightly as Susanna in WNO’s season-opening production of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” outdoes even that fine performance in her star turn as Maria in WNO’s production. Bright, youthful and full of spunk, her tomboy attitude and her character’s essentially good nature combine to drive this opera’s lighter-than-air plot with loads of charm and—particularly in the second stanza—excellent comic acting and timing including a touch of slapstick and a few bars of intentionally bad singing.
Ms. Oropesa sings Maria with a bright, almost carefree lyrical approach, expertly shaping each line for effect but doing so in a natural way. She also has the good fortune to be paired with one of our favorite lyric tenors, Lawrence Brownlee, who sings the role of Maria’s persistent boyfriend/fiancé, Tonio.
We first heard Mr. Brownlee sing several years ago with the Washington Concert Opera. We still vividly recall Mr. Brownlee’s startling mastery of each difficult phrase and line, accentuated by a silvery lyric voice of surprisingly great power and capped off by an uncanny ability to hit impossibly high notes with clarity and decisiveness.
What better tenor, then, to sing Donizetti’s Tonio? The opera’s hero must face the composer’s ultimate challenge: “Ah! Mes amis, quell jour de fête!” That’s the famous aria in which the tenor must nail not one but a total of 9 high-Cs.
Mr. Brownlee not only breezed through all 9 as if they were no problem at all. He hit them with ease, grace and an almost beatific joy. After he held onto his final high-C practically forever, the audience burst into an enthusiastic, extended ovation, one that was well-deserved.
Mr. Brownlee’s voice, character and positive attitude helped make his Tonio and Ms. Oropesa’s Marie the best pairing we’ve yet seen in many productions of this delightful opera.
In another pair of key roles, Kevin Burdette’s Sulpice and Deborah Nansteel’s Marquise were also in fine voice and also managed to give their characters just the right level of eccentricity.
Ms. Nansteel’s stuffy but warm-hearted Marquise offers only a comic threat to Marie and Tonio in the end. And Mr. Burdette’s French captain is the perfect military marionette who, however, also demonstrates a creative flair whenever circumstances warrant. Both singers deliver jolly, well-rounded vocals, and Mr. Burdette’s comic dance moves at times reminded us of John Cleese’s memorable “silly walks.”
The WNO chorus sounded great throughout, and, as “The Regiment,” the men’s chorus added vocal heft and physical comedy to the action.
Under the baton of Christopher Allen, the WNO Orchestra turned in an outstanding performance for the most part as well. But, as is sometimes the case with WNO productions, chorus and orchestra had difficulty early on in matters of tempo, and the orchestra washed over the soloists in the opera’s opening moments before settling into a compatible blend.
Which brings us to Justice Ginsburg’s extended cameo as the haughty Duchess of Krakenthorp, something we saved for last in order to first give the cast its due.
A speaking role, the Duchess of Krakenthorp intended from the day of the opera’s 1840 premiere as a comic interlude, has been subtly adapted in numerous productions to update the jokes, political and otherwise, for contemporary audiences. And so it was during Saturday’s opening night performance. Word is that the Duchess’ lines—written and delivered in English—were initially crafted by the company and then tailored into a final edition by Justice Ginsburg.
Justice Ginsburg’s actual Act II appearance as the Duchess was a visual comic sensation, even before she delivered a single line. Attired like the rest of the cast in period costume, she was wheeled onstage in an oversized, covered chair that made her Duchess appear as the tiniest of high-class curmudgeons, a haughty authority on class structure and 19th century political correctness.
Ms. Ginsburg’s Duchess lectured the cast and the audience, insisting they take heed of “fraudulent pretensions,” and wondering aloud if the quivering Marquise of Bergenfield could produce an authentic “birth certificate” (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) proving Marie’s noble blood, because, after all, “most valiant Krakenthorpians have been women.”
These and other political allusions, all heavily clad in Washingtonspeak, were generally obvious, and audience roared at each one, giving the Justice a standing ovation for her performance. (And another one at the curtain call.)
On another level, however, this cameo was almost disturbingly poignant in light of current events. The Duchess’ script appeared to have been crafted from the get-go not only to give an appreciative hat tip to one of WNO’s greatest fans, but also to invite the audience to marinate in the glory of the widely expected landslide electoral victory of America’s first-ever woman president, something that did not transpire as foretold.
For this reviewer at least, Justice Ginsburg’s show-stopping set piece, though certainly well-intentioned and amusing to a point, ended up intruding on a warmhearted period production, shattering, at least momentarily, the fairy tale mood the cast had meticulously crafted. It marked a surreal conclusion to a surreal week.
Note: the Duchess of Krakenthorp’s lines will remain the same for the opera’s remaining performances, but actress Cindy Gold will take on the role.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)
WNO’s production of Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” continues through Sunday, November 20, 2016 at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, 2700 F St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Tickets and information: Tickets to the remaining performances are priced between $45 and $315. Visit the Kennedy Center’s website and click the Washington National Opera tab, or call 1-800-444-1324.
Note: Alternate casts will appear in the roles of Marie and Tonio during select performances.