OperaDelaware’s 74th season boasts two contemporary spring festival shows that challenge us to examine the nature of redemption. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury is a comical romp; Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsburg is a fiercely entertaining crash course on the US Constitution and the people who uphold it.
A “nice dilemma”
The curtain lifts and the stage sets the tone of Trial by Jury: larger than life. The jury box, the stand, and the pillars all loom above the performers, giving them the appearance of tiny figurines running amok as they sing. The chorus launches directly into the matter at hand: a case of the “breach of promise of marriage.” Thanks to the Gilbert and Sullivan glossary in the playbill, I wasn’t lost at phrases like “tackle the mutton” (a derogatory metaphor for the seduction of an older woman).
As the cast of characters emerge, so do their intentions. The defendant, Edwin (Colin Doyle), sings a beautiful memoir of how he fell in and out of love with the plaintiff, Angelina (Anaïs Naharro-Murphy). He swaggers and dodges the glares of the jury as he protests the idea that he owes damages to his scorned lover. Angelina, for her part, simpers before the court. Her tactic works flawlessly on the jury box full of men. Moments after swearing their absolute nonpartisanship, they harmonize their collective love and devotion to this sad, beautiful woman.
None of the characters reach such levels of bombastic ego as the Learned Judge (Ben Lowe). He graces his audience with a long and lofty tale of how he came to his position, a story that ultimately reveals he lied and cheated the whole way. It’s a modern truth dipped in a glaze of goofball antics—sometimes, when we seek justice, the authorities have conned their way into power without a trace of interest in the public good.
“Who are we to judge and be judged?” This is the question posed by Scalia/Ginsburg’s composer/creator, Derrick Wang. The show opens upon Justice Antonin Scalia, expertly played by Brian Cheney, as he is visited by an otherworldly figure. The Commentator (Ben Wager) confronts Scalia on his constitutional interpretations. Clad in lavish golden robes and with godly powers, the Commentator has no patience for Scalia’s thinly veiled insolence as he argues against the power of the judiciary to modify the meaning of the Constitution.
Back and forth they debate in deft lyrics that transition seamlessly through different genres and song parodies. Every beat packs a laugh or gut punch regarding the Supreme Court and how it’s shaped our world. Magnified headlines flash across the set and we are transported through history. I was worried that the legal jargon might go over my head, but this show is a savory blend of political humor, genuine self-reflection, and our collective American rights.
All hail RBG
The Commentator cackles as he seals the exits and traps Scalia in a ghoulish chamber. Suddenly, from the floor she rises. Who knew that an opera audience could holler and cheer like it was the Super Bowl? I felt my own heart swell at the giant visual of glass shattering behind her as Jennifer Zetlan strode into the chamber as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Stunned at the sight, the Commentator demands to know how she got in, to which she sings, "Then you’ve no idea with whom you are dealing. It’s not the first time I’ve had to break through a ceiling.” Fan service? Of course. Every moment of RBG-fueled sass is brilliant.
The core of this story is the friendship between Scalia and Ginsburg, their ideological disagreements and mutual respect woven into songs like “Always ‘Liberal’” and “You, Sir, Are Wrong Here.” Ginsburg’s affectionate nickname for Scalia, “Nino,” reveals the heartfelt connection between the two legal minds. It reminds us that even the highest federal court of our country is still a group of flawed human beings.
A double-feature triumph
Both of these operas are timeless but relevant today. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury is a classic tale of extravagant romance, deception, and legal consequence. Wang’s Scalia/Ginsburg is a story of two justices who reach beyond enormous differences to find a shared devotion to their court and an improbable friendship. I saw Wang himself a few seats away after the show, warmly thanking fellow operagoers for supporting his work. Seeing this show took me beyond the normal level of appreciation for a high-quality live performance; I felt the electricity from the person laughing next to me. OperaDelaware general director Brendan Cooke may have said it best: “Opera is an analog balm for a weary digital soul.”
What, When, Where
Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, directed by Cynthia du Pont Tobias, and Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsburg, directed by Fenlon Lamb. Performed in English with English supertitles. OperaDelaware. Through Friday, May 3, 2019, at the Grand Opera House, 818 N. Market Street, Wilmington, DE. (302) 442-78078 or operade.org.
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