At Kennedy Center, the WNO has fun being back home

In a concert called 'Come Home: A Celebration of Return,' the variety of styles and greatest hits was almost too much for the ear and heart to bear.

The Kennedy Center Opera House opened Saturday night after more than 18 months with Come Home: A Celebration of Return. The full complement of the Washington National Opera orchestra was on stage and tuning. The fully vaccinated audience was dressed up and in the lobby or at the big pre-opera do’s, creating more than the usual decibel level of excited tittering. Overhead, the dazzling chandeliers, repeated for mirror effect in proscenium-wide projections upstage, beamed like galactic stars.

The program served up the equivalent of a groaning board of delectables, part Thanksgiving “staples,” part homecoming football home-team rah-rah. The evening had been marketed as all about family. Like so many family gatherings this year, some members were not present. Artistic Director Francesca Zambello was directing in Chicago, due to the crush of rescheduled opera seasons post-pandemic. Also missing was the family’s adopted “matriarch” and friend-of-opera Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose seat in first section house left had almost never been left empty on any opening night pre-COVID. The realization of her being taken from us opened and closed like a wound several times in the evening. The event was in part a tribute and memorial to this family member we lost in September 2020.

It was an emotional “coming home.” There was just so much there to take in after so long.

‘Come Home: A Celebration of Return’ at the WNO. Photo by Scott Suchman

Conductor Evan Rogister got things off to bang with WNO’s tradition of season openings for the audience to stand and join the orchestra in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He and more than 60 musicians then launched into the overture from Die Meistersinger. The sound plus the sight of the orchestral forces, usually allocated to “the pit” for productions but now featured on stage, was thrilling. The experience was heightened by an accompanying visual of archival footage documenting the vision, design, and construction of JFK’s dream of a cultural center that would emblemize the identity of a great polis.

Maestro Rogister had barely been baptized as WNO’s new conductor when COVID shut all performance venues down. He was clearly a star of the evening, using his long arms and expressive body to in turn coax, draw out, and demand more sound. This evening he did more than signal the singers; he became one of the players in certain scenes. His love for these artists, the audience, and this moment, getting his family back, in turn lifted him and brought forth tearful moments.

Most of all, he and all WNO artists were having fun being back home. Past and present singers of the Cafritz Young Artists series returned to share the stage and show their stuff as beloved family members.

The evening was divided into three themes: The Artist, Justice, and Liberty. The program rolled out so many numbers that the audience got rowdy, sometimes bursting into applause before a piece was over, and many people greeted their favorite singers with cheers.

It’s hard to pick favorites in a night as full as this.

In terms of the sheer electrifying pleasure of hearing music, a new composition by local contemporary composer Carlos Simon, Fate Now Conquers, in the first half of the program, was thrilling to hear. Simon has recently been named Composer-in-Residence at the Kennedy Center, and, as such, he could have contributed with this work an official anthem for our longed-for release from the dark of COVID. And to end the program’s first half, when the chorus broke into Verdi’s “Va pensiero…Oh, chi piange?…Del futuro” from Nabucco, the sound and sentiment rocked me down to my toes. We’ve come through! And to hear such a chorus again!

Tenor David Butt Philip and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard in ‘Come Home’ at WNO. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The variety of styles and greatest hits was almost too much, at times, for the ear and heart to bear. As a music-theater person, I began to look for a full realization of character and story. I got that with Isabel Leonard’s rendition of Jeanine Tesori’s “crossover” work The Girl in 14G. The composer is a WNO beloved family member, while the singer is fearless, creating a veritable tour de force in a trio of voices, pulling off a soprano aria, “skat” jazz, and something of a Broadway bray.

Leonard was joined later in the evening by tenor David Butt Philip as José to give an operatic staging of the death scene of Carmen. It was emotionally satisfying to follow two wildly passionate people, one desperate to possess her and the other desperate to keep her freedom.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn in ‘Come Home’ at WNO. Bibhu Mohapatra created the costumes for the night’s performance. Photos by Scott Suchman.

Lawrence Brownlee was a prominent voice in the evening line-up, assertively proving himself a home-team hero. Brownlee is an excellent representative of this company, city, and nation at this historic time for his work pushing the opera world into better equity, diversity, and inclusion. At one point, he delivered an aria — from a favorite comic opera of “the little Justice,” La fille du regiment — “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” with such verve and authority, I surely thought we would all leap to our feet, including Rogister and Brownlee, and scream, “Oh, yeah!”

Christian Van Horn is a bass-baritone whose look and voice quite naturally communicate that you might be in the presence of pure evil. He deserved Best Costume of the evening, dressed in a devilishly red satin suit with suede “driving” shoes and little gloves to match. (The company all sported short gloves in different hues, a unifying pop of color, a nice choice by Costume Designer Bibhu Mohapatra.) It was his rendition of an aria from Verdi’s “Scottish opera” that he most excelled, reining in power at times to deliver mystery, suspense, and terror. “Be careful as you go,” he sings in Italian. Van Horn’s dramatic chops were unsurpassed on this stage.

Soprano Pretty Yende in her WNO debut. Photo by Scott Suchman.

But the star that outshone all others in the evening was Pretty Yende, a soprano originally from South Africa, who in the aria from La traviata gave for me the definitive character understanding from an opera I thought I knew well. She breathed new life into every line of Violetta’s “É strano!…Ah, fors’è lui… Sempre libera,” and we could watch her thought process and emotional shifts worked out so clearly. She made the melismas in music language and laughter and made language communication into gorgeous rippling music.

A special part of the homecoming event was to see the return of the Cafritz Young Artists given the opportunity to shine on stage in such a gala event. I am banking my money on this being Zambello’s legacy: her prescience in pulling together mostly artists from the Americas representing different cultures, races, and backgrounds, to ensure that opera has relevance in the twenty-first century and that the great stories and music will endure. Alexandra Shiner, Suzannah Waddington, Rehanna Thelwell, Christian Simmons, and Duke Kim, Bravi tutti!

To close out the evening, featured singers plus chorus are on stage singing “Liberty, descend again from heaven” in half prayer, half declaration of the dawn a new hopeful era from Rossini’s William Tell. Amen.

Running Time: 2 Hours and 20 minutes with a 25-minute intermission

Come Home: A Celebration of Return produced by Washington National Opera, featuring a musical tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, performed Saturday, November 6, 2021, and performs again Monday, November 8, at 7 pm; Wednesday, November 10, at 7:30 pm; and Sunday, November 14, at 2 pm at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, ($45–$299) call (202) 467-4600 or go online.

The digital program is available here.

The Kennedy Center vaccination and mask policy is here.

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Susan Galbraith
Playwright, librettist, songwriter, director, theater reviewer, and actress Susan Galbraith has worked in London, Singapore, New York, Minneapolis, Prague, and Boston before settling in DC. Her resume includes working with international directors including Peter Brooks, Miřenka Čechová, and Peter Sellars; choreographer Takao Tomono; and rock-and-roll superstar Prince. After moving to Washington, she helped found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and in the past decade led the development of original works across the spectrum of music-theater including musicals and opera. For over a decade, she was also pleased to support the greater Washington theater community as a happy member of the reviewing team of DC Theater Scene under Lorraine Treanor. She holds a BA from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and two graduate degrees, including a Fulbright fellowship. She now lives in Kalorama with three cats, a happy Samoyed, and a most understanding partner. You can read more of her theater writing here.



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