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Washington National Opera returns to the stage, and it’s something to sing about

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard during the Washington National Opera’s “Come Home: A Celebration of Return.” (Scott Suchman/Kennedy Center)
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On Saturday night, the Washington National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Evan Rogister, played the overture from “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” below a slow-mo, Ken Burns-ian montage of the birth of the Kennedy Center: original plans and sketches, photos of massive marble slabs and grand chandeliers getting lowered and raised into place, respectively.

Normally, an extended slide show of institutional baby pictures would strike me as anodyne at best and groan-worthy at worst. But in the context of “Come Home: A Celebration of Return” — the Washington National Opera’s grand and long-delayed return to the Kennedy Center Opera House — the thing got me a little choked up. (Well, Wagner played his part, too.)

It put me in mind of the unfathomable amount of work that goes into all of us sitting there, listening to an orchestra play and hearing singers sing. The stone and sweat and labor and collaboration and time it all takes.

Over the pandemic, my experience of the WNO was limited to holdover measures (such as its pop-up opera truck), reduced realizations of hallmark programs (such as the American Opera Initiative) and rehearsals for works in progress (such as “Slopera!,” Carlos Simon’s objectively delightful adaptation of the popular “Elephant and Piggie” children’s book series by Mo Willems).

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If this homecoming (which repeats Nov. 8, 10 and 14) hit a little harder than I might have expected from an all-star cavalcade, it may be because I had an extended exposure to the resilience it required to get there, and a sense of how much the Opera House is truly the form’s home. For all of its bombast, grandeur, melodrama and over-the-top chest-clawing ridiculousness, opera at its most grand is art at its most human.

That said, Saturday night was a fireworks show, including a trio of stunner main-stage debuts from soprano Pretty Yende, British heldentenor David Butt Philip and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn.

Alexandria Shiner — a graduate of the WNO’s Cafritz Young Artists program — followed the overture with a magnificent reading of “Dich, teure Halle” from “Tannhäuser.” She has the kind of voice that shows you the shape of the hall — force and fullness, edges that glow. A fabulous opening.

Philip followed with the Preislied from “Die Meistersinger,” one of a trio of searing performances, including a duet from “Carmen” (“C’est toi? C’est moi!”) with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who will return in May to sing the role with the WNO.

Leonard was a knockout on her own, missing nary a hairpin turn with a showcase rendition of “The Girl in 14G,” Jeanine Tesori’s song (made famous by Kristin Chenoweth) of a tenant caught in a trio with her musical neighbors. And her take on “Sein wir wieder gut” from Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” was wrenching and resonant on multiple levels; her declaration of music as a sacred art sung with the passion of a hymn.

The orchestra brought heat and nuance to “Fate Now Conquers,” a composition from Simon commissioned following his 2019 entry for the American Opera Initiative. As the center’s composer-in-residence, Simon has been creating works that have been brightening up programs with their sheen and sensitivity, and “Fate” was no exception.

Yende gave revelatory readings of arias from Offenbach’s “Les contes d’Hoffmann” — alongside the magnificent Van Horn, convincing as just about any apparition of evil in his crimson suit — and “La Traviata.” Her “È strano! . . . Ah, fors’è lui” struck the perfect balance of abandon and anguish. The translation that ran above (“I will enjoy myself”) doubled as a caption for her performance.

Crucially, “Come Home” served as the local opera community’s belated opportunity to honor the life and legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who enjoyed a long and loving relationship with the WNO, even appearing onstage in its production of Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” (to a roaring reception). The evening’s second half was split into themes of “Justice” and “Liberty,” and it accordingly featured a selection of the justice’s favorite arias. (The choice to don the singers in sheer multicolored gloves was another fond and fun tribute.)

Let’s talk about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fishnet gloves

Family members of Ginsburg and her fellow justice and opera fan Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, were in attendance; WNO general director Timothy O’Leary announced gifts to the company from the Scalia and Ginsburg families. In addition to a collection of Ginsburg’s books, opera recordings and memorabilia, the WNO will also receive her baby grand piano.

“In a room that is now called the [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Studio and Music Library], our artists for generations to come will prepare accompanied by that piano,” O’Leary said. A short film of Ginsburg’s rise through government and enduring presence at the opera (her usual seats were house left) was also shown.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who shared the stage with Ginsburg in “The Daughter of the Regiment,” delivered a thrilling “Ah, mes amis” with a more than a few high C’s triggering giggles of wonder through the house. Earlier, he delivered one of the most nimble and razor-sharp accounts I’d ever heard of “L’espoir renaît dans mon âme” (from Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice”).

Ruth Bader Ginsburg makes her Washington National Opera debut with a role mirroring her real life

“Come Home” also served as a belated introduction to some of the singers in the WNO’s Cafritz Young Artists program.

In the proper embrace of the Opera House, their voices sounded fully at home: Compelling mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell emerged as the departed mother of Yende’s soaring Antonia and Van Horn’s stirring Miracle in the trio from “Les contes d’Hoffmann.” Alongside Shiner, powerful soprano Suzannah Waddington lent a glow to “Mir ist so wunderbar” from “Fidelio.”

Bass-baritone Christian Simmons and tenor Duke Kim, who this year was also a grand finals winner in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, also gave strong showings — enough to make me wish they’d had a bit more of a showcase.

The finale brought Yende, Leonard, Waddington, Brownlee, Van Horn, Simmons and the chorus (who were wonderful to hear for my first time) together for the closer of Rossini’s “William Tell,” and if it was meant as a goodbye, it sure came across as a resounding reintroduction: “May your reign begin anew!”

Come Home: A Celebration of Return repeats Nov. 8, 10 and 14. Tickets at kennedy-center.org/wno.

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