OperaDelaware scores with legal-themed festival

OperaDelaware’s 2019 legal-themed festival features the most performed opera of the 21st century, “Dead Man Walking,” along with the comical “Scalia/Ginsburg.”

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan stars as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg alongside her high court frenemy Antonin Scalia played by tenor Brian Cheney in OperaDelaware’s presentation of “Scalia/Ginsburg.” (Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography)

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan stars as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg alongside her high court frenemy Antonin Scalia played by tenor Brian Cheney in OperaDelaware’s presentation of “Scalia/Ginsburg.” (Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography)

The verdict is in: OperaDelaware is once again guilty of presenting first-rate opera with world-class singers, directors, designers and conductors as it returned to The Grand Opera House in Wilmington with its legal-themed 2019 Festival “In Opera We Trust.”

The event features two contemporary works: Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and Derrick Wang’s “Scalia/Ginsburg.” Also on the docket is Gilbert & Sullivan’s sparkling 19th century satire “Trial by Jury.”

“Dead Man Walking” is credited as the most performed opera of the 21st century. And deservedly so. It is a transformative and gut-wrenching drama that takes audiences on a journey to a universe that most will, thankfully, never know. Librettist Terrence McNally has created a multilayered drama that explores the myriad issues surrounding the death penalty in the U.S. without taking sides. The takeaway: answers are not in black and white.

Based on the 1993 best-selling memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, the opera tells the story of the nun’s relationship with a convict sentenced to death for murdering a pair of teenage lovers. Far more than a treatise on the death penalty, “Dead Man Walking” is an exploration of the timeless and complex spiritual issues of confession, forgiveness and redemption.

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The two stars are mezzo soprano Aleks Romano and baritone Tim Mix. Romano portrays the often conflicted Prejean in all her vulnerability and strength in a tour de force performance. Mix is effectively menacing as De Rocher. His robust baritone and commanding stage presence make more credible the fear that lurks behind the macho rage and swagger.

Baritone Tim Mix is effectively menacing as death row inmate Joseph De Rocher in OperaDelaware’s presentation of “Dead Man Walking.” (Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography)

Other notable performances included Jenni Bank as Mrs. De Rocher, who is deeply moving in her plea to the prison board to spare her son’s life. Adrienne Danrich excels as Sister Rose, Sister Helen’s co-worker and confidante. Orin Strunk and Ben Wager also turn in solid performances as the chaplain and prison warden, respectively. As the parents of the murdered children, Ben Lowe, Dana MacIntosh, Wesley Morgan and Chelsea Duval-Major, wisely measure the grief and anger they mete out on Sister Helen. Choral preparation is deftly handled by Aurelien Eulert.

Heggie’s score, which borrows freely from the cannons of Copeland, Bernstein, the blues and Broadway, is supportive rather than memorable, despite robust playing from the orchestra under the baton of Jerome Shannon. The music falls silent at the execution scene. Making the conclusion more harrowing.

The second half of the festival offers a more lighthearted look at the law with productions of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury” and Derrick Wang’s “Scalia/Ginsburg.”

Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader-Ginsburg were not averse to sharing an evening of opera together; so it’s only fitting that an opera be written about the unofficial leaders of the conservative and liberal wings of the court.

This clever and amusing one-act opera features the justices in a legal and musical repartee using material taken from their own writings or public comments. Drawing on the idea that legal opinions are built on a long history of precedent, Wang has stitched together a score that cannibalizes myriad composers, eras and genres. There are bits of Bizet’s “Carmen,” some Handel, plenty of Mozart, a Christmas carol, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the lament from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.” The audience, consisting of both opera lovers and lawyers, seemed to have a great time identifying the references.

Jennifer Zetlan’s crystalline and supple soprano delivers an invincible, articulate and sympathetic Ginsburg. Scalia, her frenemy, is played by tenor Brian Cheney, whose comedic flair and sensitive phrasing saves the role from caricature. Presiding over the proceedings which are structured as three trials designed to test Scalia’s character, is bass Ben Wager, who has a suitably authoritative and commanding voice.

“Scalia/Ginsburg” is preceded by Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury.” The “case” involves a breach of promise of marriage lawsuit in which the judge and the legal system are satirized.

Baritone Ben Lowe (right) has audiences laughing in his role as the judge in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury” at OperaDelaware’s 2019 festival. (Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography)

The high-quality vocals are evident as soon as the curtain rises. Equally important, each syllable that is sung is perfectly distinct, allowing the audience to hear the rhymes and word play without having to refer to the monitors.

As Edwin, the defendant, Colin Doyle’s strong tenor soars, and he even manages to pull of the “tink-a-tank” nonsense to the audience’s delight. Ben Lowe’s judge has the audience in stitches with his delivery of the patter song, “When I, good friends, was called to the Bar.” As Angelina, the plaintiff, Anais Naharro-Murphy flirts shamelessly with the jury but must wait until the end to shed her damsel-in-distress persona with the number “I love him, I love him, with fervor unceasing.”

The OperaDelaware 2019 Festival runs through Saturday, May 4 at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.operade.org.

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