- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

Ruffles and flourishes: what else to expect at the opening of the Washington National Opera’s golden anniversary season? The ruffles seen Saturday evening in the Kennedy Center Opera House were, in a manner of speaking, a collection of designer frocks worn by svelte ladies in the audience and myriad gorgeous costumes seen onstage.

A sampling: Grega Daly in a black tiered gown by Oscar de la Renta that was “hot off the press;” JoAnn Mason’s “never fail” bronze lace Donna Karan; Rima Al-Sabah and Cindy Jones in brilliant 3-D Emanuel Ungaro; Grace Bender in a lush number by Brazilian designer Carlos Miele. Decolletage was the order of the night.

Flourishes began with the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by the opera orchestra under the baton of WNO General Director Placido Domingo and continued through a lengthy but impressive debut of a new version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” (“The Sicilian Vespers”).

“I’m just happy that everyone seems happy,” said Betty Casey, the self-effacing WNO life chairman commenting about reaction to a production that employed a series of large picture frames as part of the set design and a digital projection of period paintings in the background. (Not to mention a quartet of top-notch soloists and supporting singers as well as a large chorus portraying a Sicilian uprising against French occupying forces in the 13th century.)

The Eugene B. Casey Endowment underwrote the production to the tune of several million dollars.

Supporters were ebullient — that the company had recently concluded successful labor union negotiations to ensure an uninterrupted 50th season — and proud that a special open dress rehearsal of the production had netted $24,000 for Hurricane Katrina Red Cross relief funds.

“I will try to be brief, but this is a special night,” said Mr. Domingo, who is noted for effusive and elaborate praise of peers and colleagues. By now the clock was well past midnight — dessert and dancing would continue until the wee hours — but he said he had an upcoming performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and so could not linger. He confessed that the leading tenor’s role in “I Vespri Siciliani” was “the most difficult part I ever sang on any stage — parallel to ‘Othello’ and “Tristan’” — while paying homage to the stars of the night as well as the presence of former WNO director Martin Feinstein.

Special guests of the evening, introduced by WNO President Michael R. Sonnenreich, included perennial Opera Ball sponsor Betty Knight Scripps, Sen.Patrick J. Leahy, Rep. Norm Dicks, composer-conductor Marvin Hamlisch (just off the podium in the Concert Hall), innumerable ambassadors and their wives, and former Chief of Protocol Lucky Roosevelt, who reported that actor Christopher Plummer and other “attractive people from abroad” are lined up for the March 19 Golden Gala, the Opera’s next “hot ticket” bash. Italian Ambassador Sergio Vento, who could not be present, contributed Sicilian wines for the meal.

“Viva Verdi. Viva Washington National Opera,” Dinner Chairman John Pohanka concluded.

— Ann Geracimos

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