Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a veritable rock star. She also is an actual opera star. On Thursday night, the Kennedy Center Opera House was filled with an adoring crowd that roared with adulation for her at every opportunity.
Ginsburg was not, of course, singing herself (although she did take a small spoken role earlier this season). She was offering an iteration of what has become an established routine, now called “Justice at the Opera,” that involves her giving some remarks, and making some jokes, while acting as a kind of emcee for opera arias and scenes relating, more or less, to legal matters. (On Thursday, the opening number, the scene from “Falstaff” in which two women get the same love letter from the same man, was offered as an example of mail fraud.)
The justice has honed her delivery, and her material, since a similar program at the Glimmerglass festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., a few years ago. She was addressing an audience of devoted fans, and nobody wanted her to be anything other than herself: very small, slightly stooped, with a gravelly voice and a vintage Americanese pronunciation of foreign words that come her way (which is quite a lot, when you’re talking about opera). But her timing, delivery and material, which she wrote herself, were all even more polished and hit every mark.
To a friendly audience drawn together in a community of unspoken political agreement, every remark and gesture came across with political overtones, even among the singers. In a scene from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore,” a handshake between Belcore and Nemorino was extended when Belcore refused to let go of Nemorino’s hand and kept pulling it toward him as he shook it, evoking a certain contemporary political leader.
And after the overture from Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio” — gorgeously led by the Washington National Opera’s music director, Philippe Auguin — Ginsburg observed that Leonore, the opera’s heroine, was rare in an operatic canon filled with consumptive, suffering heroines. Lenore is strong and victorious, showing, Ginsburg said after citing many contrasting examples, “how women really are.” The crowd went wild, again.
What made the evening even more delightful was that the musical quality was so high. Auguin, who has a fine rapport with the orchestra, is all too rare a visitor to his own company (though he will conduct “Madame Butterfly” in May). This represented his first outing with the players since their triumph in last year’s “Ring” cycle, and he led what might have been a throwaway evening with the same care and opulence of sound he showed then. The young singers of the Domingo-Cafritz program also rose to the occasion, not least in remembering to have fun, a commodity sometimes in short supply in a field that too often expresses its supposed superiority in an excess of earnestness.
Not that levity was always appropriate. Frederick Ballentine, a promising tenor, had especially heavy lifting with “E lucevan le stele” from “Tosca,” the Seguidilla scene from “Carmen” and a painful aria from Philip Glass’s “Appomattox,” the opera presented here so successfully in 2015, recounting the Ku Klux Klan’s slaughter of a hundred black militiamen. (Ginsburg introduced this segment by outlining her dissent in the 2013 decision revising the Voting Rights Act.) Ballentine’s voice is still growing toward the final measure of heroic “ping” for the Puccini, but he had every bit of the dramatic and musical heft to bring across the biting scene from Glass’s work, which held up very well against the other excerpts.
But in other scenes, even serious ones, the singers were having fun. Leah Hawkins showed her developing Verdian potential in scenes from “Aida” and “Un ballo in maschera,” with Daryl Freedman as a wonderfully spoiled Amneris in the former and Ariana Wehr as a bright, happy Oscar in the latter. Allegra De Vita was sultry, vocally sound and just a bit tongue-in-cheek as a glamorous Carmen. And Rexford Tester, a tenor, and Michael Adams, a baritone, put a big smile on my face with the “Elisir” duet “Venti scudi,” in which Tester’s light, clear voice fit very well. Andrea Dorf McGray was credited with stage direction and deserves a nod for keeping a sense of movement, and humor, onstage.
The singers were palpably aware of Ginsburg’s presence, presiding from an armchair at the side of the stage when she wasn’t speaking from the lectern between numbers. Adams, as Belcore, had her notarize the contract inducting Nemorino into the army, which she did with good grace. And in the final number, the finale of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury,” Timothy J. Bruno, a bass, and the company altered one repetition of the line, “Yes, I am a judge, and a good judge, too,” to “Yes, she is a judge, and a good judge, too.” More applause.
Music has traditionally done well in regions beset by political uncertainty or oppression, where an opera house or concert hall represents an escape and a place of tacit community. Some of that spirit seemed, on Thursday, to fuel an unusually enjoyable evening.