As WH Auden pointed out, “No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” Some people will always dislike opera precisely because of its thin plots. I’m not one of them. The time-worn clichés of dramatic irony and stock relational revelations (the lady in the plum-coloured frock, you may be surprised to know, is in fact, your mother!) are a pleasant vehicle, a happy excuse for the essential matter of bel canto opera – the singing – and it is the quality of this singing upon which a performance essentially depends. WNO caught the spirit of this beautifully at its opening night of Gaetano Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment.

In the hands of director and choreographer, Robert Longbottom, this was a straight production – by that I mean a gold-button, brocade and epaulette affair. Sets were well executed in an entirely traditional way; particularly attractive was the way the elliptical mountain pass of Act I, became the elliptical chateau staircases in Act II. For all the embrace of the traditional, Longbottom treated us to some delightfully sly details, the chief of which was the WNO debut of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself in the cameo role of the formidable Duchess of Krakenthorp. A life-long devotee of the opera and a regular here at the Kennedy Center, she gave a corker of a performance, speaking her lines in English, except when interspersed with the occasional word of German or French. Her “Quel scandale!” at the crux moment brought the house down. There were sly references to the birther controversy, to fraudulent pretenders and other issues du jour. Read into them what you will. Ginsburg herself has been instrumental in breaking down traditional gender roles; the program indeed included a quotation from her judicial opinion requiring the admission of women to the Virginia Military Institute. All this was designed to add some depth to our understanding of Marie’s plight as the soldier-girl who is forced into learning the social graces, so as to belong in polite society. Whether it did or not, is another whole question, but it was a nice touch, and gave it a Washingtonian twist.

Lisette Oropesa gave a simply dazzling performance as tomboy-turned-lady, Marie. From the graceful, ardent first notes (sung off stage) to the glorious finale on the shoulders of the regiment, she was seemingly born to play the part. Her garçon persona – carried off with irresistible spirit and aplomb – was belied by one of those effortlessly lovely female voices, quite thrilling at the higher register, soaring above the chorus and the other leads when needed. It was a consummate performance, sung with notable facility.  

Lawrence Brownlee as Tonio, although not perhaps the most convincing actor on stage tonight, produced the goods when required, especially in a magnificently sustained last note of his celebrated aria “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!”. It was true, tonally beauteous and justly measured: unsurprisingly, the audience burst into prolonged applause. Ah how we all love a tenor!

Sergeant Sulpice – sung with wonderful verve and comic timing by the mustachioed Kevin Burdette (dig those fantastically rolled ‘rs’) – was a captivating stage presence, with his little solo disco moves, permanently in need of a tipple (he was, to be frank, always somewhat squiffy). The comic trio between himself, Marie and Tonio in Act II was a brilliant piece of comic timing and vocal interplay. The endearingly vain and foolish regiment (clearly not a useful fighting force) provided a bravura background chorus. Their antics and mock heroics were captivatingly choreographed, their sentimentality no less so. As fond fathers all, they had collected mementos of Marie’s childhood to give her on departure – loading her down with so much ‘stuff’ (rosary beads, teddy bear, doll, and even her first baby shoes), that a satchel was needed. The orchestra, under the baton of Christopher Allen, performed creditably. The show continues next week, alternating with Andriana Churchman and Andrew Stenson, in the lead roles.

This was a delightful performance of a light-hearted opera, and one richly enjoyed by all.