Oropesa, Brownlee lead the charge in WNO’s delightful “Daughter of the Regiment”
Washington National Opera continues its rather lightweight season this month. The company has returned to the French farce La Fille du Régiment, which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. This comes less then a decade since the last production of this Donizetti’s silly opéra comique in 2007. At its best the work will be a guilty pleasure; at its worst an insipid bore.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to report that WNO has a minor hit on its hands. This production is not going to change anyone’s life, but it has enough musical and visual charm to be enjoyable. For anyone looking for an innocent diversion from this week’s political upheaval, look no further.
In the title role of Marie, soprano Lisette Oropesa has finally found a role locally that is a good match for her light, effervescent voice. All of the high notes vaulted convincingly, and the floated high pianissimi were limpid and pure. The legato poignancy of “Il faut partir” was one of the high points of the first act, backed up by the stage antics of the soldiers’ chorus. Fitted out with a boyish haircut and clunky male mannerisms, Oropesa made an irrepressibly cute vivandière.
As Tonio, the Tyrolean bumpkin who joins the Napoleonic army because he loves Marie, tenor Lawrence Brownlee excelled. He deployed outstanding bel canto style and brilliant tone in his slow arias, and easily zinged off the required nine high Cs for his big showpiece aria in Act I, “Ah! mes amis.” Brownlee handled his strong tenor with confidence, holding out high notes for extended periods with easy breath support.
Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel, a former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, had a hilarious turn as the Marquise of Berkenfield, who discovers that Marie is her long-lost daughter. In her opening aria, Nansteel’s voice had presence and beauty from the bottom range to a steely top, once again proving her to be a rising singer to watch.
Baritone Kevin Burdette made a broadly comic company debut as Sulpice, the sergeant who watches over Marie with a protective eye. For comic roles Burdette brings a rich voice, impeccable comic timing, and a vocabulary of shtick gestures worthy of Charlie Chaplin. Current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Timothy J. Bruno and Hunter Enoch filled out the rest of the cast capably as Hortensius and the Corporal.
Christopher Allen had a mostly able company debut at the podium. He allowed enough rhythmic flexibility to give the pit musicians confidence, as with the exposed horn and woodwind solos that open the overture. Fast-paced scenes sometimes slipped out of his hands, largely because of the tendency of the male chorus to rush the downbeat.
Robert Longbottom’s new production is solidly traditional, in the best way. A shift of setting or other directorial sleight of hand is a mistake in an opera this slight, as it was the last time WNO staged Fille. A circular hole in the backdrop revealed the Tyrolean landscape in the first act (sets by James Noone), although it gave the impression that the scene was taking place in a cave. The same opening featured staircases in the Marquise’s home in the second act. Handsome costumes by Zack Brown were solidly set in the early 19th century.
For opening night only, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the stage in the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp. A fixture at every opera performance in Washington for decades, the Justice has taken supernumerary roles for the company in the past, but this was a step beyond that.
The dialogue for the imperious duchess was expanded and changed, so that Ginsburg could land several topical punches, with the assistance of a microphone. After demanding that the Marquise produce Marie’s birth certificate, Ginsburg’s character went on to observe that a member of the Krakenthorp family must have “open but not empty minds,” as well as “the fortitude to undergo intense scrutiny” and “a character beyond reproach.” Is it any surprise, she asked, “that the most valorous members have been women?”
The jokes, released to the press last month, would have played differently if the results of Tuesday’s presidential election had gone the other way. No matter, since the audience hooted and howled with delight at every word, most likely aware that Newt Gingrich, an advisor to President-Elect Trump, was seated only two rows from the stage, right in front of Ginsburg. It was one of those “Only in Washington” moments.
La Fille du Régiment runs through November 20, with two different casts. kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/OROSB; 202- 467-4600.