The Duchess of Krakenthorp, a small speaking role in Donizetti's comic opera "The Daughter of the Regiment," doesn't usually stop the show. Then again, that part isn't usually portrayed by a Supreme Court justice.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's opening-night-only cameo as the Duchess in Washington National Opera's perky production set off a roaring ovation before she uttered a word. (She has appeared onstage as an extra a few times, but this was her official company debut.)
All the Kennedy Center audience needed was the first sight of the diminutive judge wearing a satiny, lime-colored 19th-century gown and sitting in — more like swallowed up by — a large hooded chair.
She went on to deliver pointed lines about the need for vetting the opera's heroine, Marie (silvery voiced soprano Lisette Oropesa), before marriage to the Duchess' nephew. You can imagine the laughter when Ginsburg spoke of needing to see a birth certificate, warned against "fraudulent pretensions," and noted that the "most valiant Krakenthorpians have been women."
The cheers for Ginsburg were even more vociferous at the end of the evening when she took several cute, curtsying curtain calls. Pity Cindy Gold, the actress playing the Duchess in the remaining performances of the opera. Talk about a tough act to follow. (The wry dialogue that Ginsburg delivered remains.)
Even without a starry cameo, the production makes for an entertaining couple of hours. It's fueled by Donizetti's infectious score, which balances lightheartedness with just enough tenderness to flesh out the characters of Marie and Tonio, the Tyrolean who captures her heart. That score gets a lively workout here.
Oropesa does not have a big sound, but her limpid tone and elegant phrasing pay dividends. This is especially true in "Il faut partir," Marie's Act 1 aria of farewell to Tonio after learning that she must leave him and the regiment to follow her new-found aunt. (The opera is performed in the original French; Ginsburg said her lines in English.)
The soprano is a natural comic actress, too. She has particular fun in the second act, when Marie, pushed to hone high-society ways, makes a mess of singing and dancing lessons.
"The Daughter of the Regiment" is most famous for Tonio's aria, "Pour mon ame," with its nine — count 'em, nine — high C's. Lawrence Brownlee, one of today's most admired tenors, hits those C's with aplomb (giving the last one extra hold, to delectable effect).
More importantly, Brownlee sings everything with style and communicative nuance. And his musicality is matched by dynamic acting.
Kevin Burdette does droll work as Sulpice, the regimental sergeant, and provides vocal sparks along the way. His contribution helps make the bubbly Act 2 trio with Oropesa and Brownlee a major highlight.
Deborah Nansteel gives a spot-on performance as the Marquise of Berkenfield, who bears crucial knowledge of Marie's roots. The chorus proves reliable in tone and action.
Nicely nuanced conducting by Christopher Allen adds much to the production. He knows how to keep the tempos jumping but also how to sculpt a lyrical line eloquently, and he coaxes colorful playing from the orchestra.
This isn't the freshest-looking "Daughter of the Regiment" imaginable. James Noone's storybook scenic design suggests budget limitations; the set would fit more neatly into a much smaller theater. Robert Longbottom's stage direction is certainly lively, but likewise strikes an old-fashioned note. A sometimes repetitive note, too — several scenes involve repeated shtick that cries out for variants and surprise.
Still, when all is sung and marched, this "Daughter of the Regiment" provides a welcome diversion as it salutes Donizetti's genius.
(Note that at some performances Andriana Chuchman will sing the role of Marie, Andrew Stenson that of Tonio.)
If you go
"The Daughter of the Regiment" runs through Sunday at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W. Tickets are $45 to $315. Call 800-444-1324, or go to kennedy-center.org.