- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

Opening the opera season with a musical tragedy about blood, terror and the beheading of hooded victims on the third anniversary of the September 11 attacks didn’t deter the Washington National Opera from premiering its production of “Andrea Chenier” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Saturday night.

Not to worry. Italian composer Umberto Giordano’s work depicting the horrors of French Revolutionary excess was a smash hit from the moment the curtain rose on the exquisite costumes and lavish sets where tenor-of-the-moment Salvatore Licitra, 35, received sustained ovations for his title role as the doomed poet in a performance that won’t soon be forgotten.

Anticipation about his Washington debut had been building over the summer, especially among opera-goers familiar with Mr. Licitra’s now-legendary lucky break two years ago when he successfully stepped in to replace the ailing Luciano Pavarotti in “Tosca” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Placido Domingo, the opera’s general director, was beaming as patrons exulted in his casting choice.

“He’s an absolutely first-class tenor with a really beautiful voice,” Mr. Domingo told patrons later, making sure to credit his youthful colleague’s mastery of “very difficult arias” in a role once dominated by such opera greats as Richard Tucker and Franco Corelli.

Polish director Mariusz Trelinski also drew acclaim for “transforming a traditional opera into a riveting, entirely new experience” (as opera trustee Ina Ginsburg put it) with innovative staging and props, dancers and numerous macabre effects.

“It was done by someone with a pretty deep understanding of what terrorism is all about,” noted Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a noted opera buff.

“Terror may change costumes — it can be communist or Nazi — but it is always the same.” said Mr. Trelinski, whose country endured 50 years of occupation by German and Soviet forces.

Opera officials would have preferred a date other than September 11 to begin the fall season, but the Kennedy Center’s tight Opera House schedule effectively boxed them in.

“Life goes on. We had to get started,” said company chairman Michael Sonnenreich, who appeared onstage before the performance to lead the audience in a moment of silence for the victims of the terrorists’ attacks.

Nothing dampened spirits during cocktails, dinner and dancing in the Atrium where ladies made fashion statements in accordance with the evening’s “red, white or blue” theme. Among them: Aniko Gall Schott, wearing a long, blue gown by Yves Saint-Laurent; Deborah Sigmund (in slinky red Scaasi); Jellie van Eenennaam (a blond goddess in flowing white by Italian designer Genny) and Rima al-Sabah, whose blue caftan was “Moroccan in design, made in Kuwait and worn Punjabi-style.”

Opera benefactress Betty Casey gave a little speech (she did underwrite the dinner, after all). Diamond-drenched Betty Knight Scripps announced her divorce from third husband Jeremy Harvey would be final on Nov. 8 as two private security guards hovered nearby. Sen. Patrick Leahy (who said “all the issues are on John Kerry’s side”) was sighted along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, World Bank prez James Wolfensohn, Mandy and Mary Ourisman (thankful their Jamaican estate escaped the full fury of Hurricane Ivan), Lucky Roosevelt, Jim Kimsey, and the ambassadors of France, Israel, Colombia, Costa Rica, Canada, Malta, Sweden, Kuwait, Morocco, Poland and Hungary.

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