- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

What could it mean that three prominent members of the country's defense establishment chose to attend the Washington Opera's season opener Saturday for a splendid and splendidly gloomy new production of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor?"

Comfort in numbers, perhaps, and certainly the comfort of a post-performance gala at which the company's renowned artistic director, Placido Domingo, hailed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, saying, "We wish for the good of the whole world that they have the right mind and right thoughts to bring us all a peaceful world."

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also was present for the show, as were former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen.

Approached at intermission, Mr. Rumsfeld confessed that his favorite opera of all time is "Aida," an equally tragic love story set in Egypt, as full of war sounds as "Lucia" is full of betrayal and deceit.

"I'm very impressionable. My first opera was 'Aida,'" Mr. Rumsfeld said, adding that while watching a crucial scene in "Lucia" from the White House mezzanine box, "I wanted to yell down, 'Don't sign it' to keep the ethereal lyric soprano Elizabeth Futral, in the title role, from signing a marriage contract sealing her fate.

"My favorite opera?" responded Mr. Wolfowitz, a guest at the gala dinner in the Kennedy Center Atrium that set back patrons $300 apiece on top of $700 each for choice opening-night seats. "After tonight, this one is," he said, echoing the audience's enthusiastic response to the performance, the first "Lucia" done by the company in 13 years.

It will be followed by this Saturday's debut of "La Boheme," which will be the subject of an artists' round table to be held Friday at 6:30 p.m. in an Opera House rehearsal room. The discussion is free and open to the public. (For reservations, call 202/295-2463.)

Show and event planners didn't miss a trick in creating effects. A pair of handsome Scottish deerhounds dashed across a cloud-bedecked stage set at the opening curtain, and pipers from the Washington Scottish Pipe Band entertained the departing audience at the close. (The opera is set in Scotland.) It was the dogs' theatrical debut, said owner Alan Wilson while his patient pedigreed pets were being patted congratulations by patrons afterward in the hall.

The production's director, Marthe Keller, who is best known as an actress, was making her Washington debut as well, having only recently finished starring in a movie due out this fall. She oversaw such compelling atmospherics as roaring wind and sea sounds and softly falling rain and snow.

Stunning costume designs by Jess Goldstein long gowns in rich pink, purple and red fabrics for Miss Futral's "Lucia" were inspired by the Victorian period's affinity for pre-Raphaelite art, said Washington Opera's costume director, Marsha LeBoeuf, who supervised the creation of just under 200 numbers for chorus and principals.

"The production isn't traditional," Ms. LeBoeuf noted. "Not everyone is in kilts" the usual treatment.

Mr. Domingo, as usual, gave a full account at dinner of cast friendships and achievements. The tenor fathers of two of the evening's male leads, Jorge Lagunes and Alfredo Portilla, were "compatriots" of Mr. Domingo's and wife Marta's when the couple performed together in Mexico long ago.

He even managed to conclude his effusive notes by the relatively early hour of 11:30 p.m., with a cheerful farewell. "You can go home," he said with a smile.

A surfeit of diplomatic representatives attended, including British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer and Lady Meyer, who were the dinner's designated patrons, along with the ambassadors of France, Spain, Italy, Chile and Morocco.

The Washington Opera's longtime supporting patrons were out in force as well, including "golden benefactors" Betty Casey, Betty Scripps Harvey, William Hunter and board Chairman James Kimsey, who couldn't resist his familiar paean in remarks about how Washington was beginning to rival "Athens of Pericles' time."

Big words. Big occasion.

Also on the guest list: Marta Domingo, Kennedy Center Chairman Michael Kaiser, Bill and Buffy Cafritz, Calvin Cafritz, Michael Sonnereich, Selwa Roosevelt, Ina Ginsburg, Lolo Sarnoff, John and JoAnn Mason, Huda and Samia Farouki, Sam Lehrman, Albert and Shirley Small, Leo and Grega Daly, Hermen and Monica Greenberg, Grace Bender, Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg and John Pohanka.

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