Thursday, March 23, 2006

THE EVENT: A Golden Gala at the Kennedy Center celebrating the Washington National Opera’s 50th anniversary.

THE PROGRAM: Briskly paced musical performances in the Opera House enthralled the audience, save for “The Audition — An Opera Spuffo,” a showbiz skit penned by Marvin Hamlisch and Sheldon Harnick. Such fluffery seems to be mandatory at gala affairs these days, but this one quickly wore out its welcome. Nevertheless, perky (and “strategically” miked) Kristin Chenoweth and Placido Domingo added quirky charm to the ephemeral proceedings, which highlighted the powerful voice of Trevor Scheunemann, a strapping young baritone participating in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

Soprano Anna Netrebko dazzled in her duet with maestro Domingo, from Manuel Penella’s zarzuela “El Gato Montes,” and was charming in her opening solo, “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” despite nearly taking a tumble in the wings on her exit. Ably assisted by the Washington National Opera Chorus, renowned bass-baritone Sam Ramey was at his satanic best in the Witches’ Sabbath scene from Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele.” New D.C. fave soprano Anja Kampe was moving in Leonora’s aria “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from Verdi’s “La forza del destino.” Subbing for Salvatore Licitra — who was indisposed, to great disappointment — tenor Paul Groves charmed the audience with a lovely aria from the company’s upcoming “L’elisir d’amore.” Local favorite soprano Denyce Graves also bowed out because of illness, but neither absence seriously marred a highly memorable night.

WHO’S WHO AFFAIR: A glamorous Washington party (not an oxymoron for once) that impressed visiting Paris, Palm Beach, New York and Texas glitterati as much as local loyalists accustomed to the finest fashion, flowers and food. Even out-of-town billionaires such as Ross Perot, Sid Bass and George Lindemann were impressed by the high-powered Washington VIPs, who included four Cabinet members (Donald H. Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, Michael Chertoff, Carlos Gutierrez); major ambassadors (Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Japan); Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who appeared onstage as judicially robed supernumeraries); plus other boldfaced benefactors we could name and will: candy heirs Jacqueline Badger Mars and John F. Mars, Roy Huffington, Pat Kluge, Gay Gaines, Bitsey Folger, Jim Kimsey, Huntington Block, Mary Weinmann, Albert Small, Michael Sonnenreich, Calvin and Jane Cafritz, Kip Forbes and Alyne Massey.

DINNER PARTNER JITTERS: “Oh, I think I need another drink,” said the tres decollete Nada Kidar, wife of Investcorp founder Nemir Kidar, upon discovering her dinner partner was Mr. Rumsfeld (who “could have taken a freebie,” according to one organizer, but contributed $50,000 instead).

THE BOTTOM LINE: Freewheeling company director Placido Domingo singled out longtime trustee Selwa S. “Lucky” Roosevelt for spearheading the $4 million-plus fundraising effort. “We don’t let him spend it all,” Mrs. Roosevelt said with a laugh after the superstar tenor thanked her for raising seven-figure sums “three times in ten years.”

ACTING UP: At table 306, where Parisian antiquaire Ariane Dandois turned the heads of grandes dames and diplomats alike, but not because of her visage, coiffure et bijoux magnifiques. The former maitresse en titre of Baron Elie de Rothschild just couldn’t stop blabbing with gala co-conductor Emmanuel Villaume and her daughter, Ondine de Rothschild, throughout thank-you speeches by Mr. Domingo and opera Chairman John Pohanka.

SEEN AND HEARD: Mr. Rumsfeld greeting deputy-turned-World-Bank-chief Paul Wolfowitz while conferring with Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah … big hugs and kisses for much-missed former Ambassadors Jan Eliasson of Sweden and Ferdinando Salleo of Italy … kudos for Gerson Nordlinger, the only surviving founding trustee from 1956 … not-so-serious griping from donors who gave just 10 grand apiece (“We’re seated at a table with other measly tens.”) … newspaper heiress Betty Scripps Harvey “billing and cooing” in Scaasi and major diamonds with her fourth (and third) husband, Jeremy Harvey … a designers’ runway of glamour gowns worn by Mrs. Roosevelt (Bill Blass), Aniko Gaal Schott (Oscar de la Renta), Nini Ferguson (Hermes) and others too numerous to mention. “More gold dresses than I’ve ever seen before in my life,” as Mary Mochary blithely pointed out. … And more jewels than in Ali Baba’s cave.

• Music critic T.L. Ponick contributed to this story.

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