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'Ghosts of Versailles' at Wolf Trap

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from Wolf Trap.

After nearly a quarter-century delay, the Washington D.C. area has finally gotten the chance to see and hear John Corigliano’s opera The Ghosts of Versailles, composed for the Metropolitan Opera and premiered in 1991. It was worth the wait.

On Friday evening, July 10, 2015, Wolf Trap Opera opened its four-performance run (ending July 18) with an exhilarating performance. It was a coup de théâtre and a jeu d’esprit, performed with joie de vivre. I choose my French words advisedly as the opera is based on the works of Pierre-Austin Caron de Beaumarchais, the renowned French author of The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Guilty Mother; the first two works of which provided the librettos for Rossini’s and Mozart’s famous operas.

available at Amazon
Corigliano, Phantasmagoria, Fantasia, et al.,
E.Klas/Tampere PO

available at Amazon
Guilty Pleasures, Moments for self-indulging and a little Corigliano exerpt,

William M. Hoffman provided the libretto for Corigliano, meanwhile, and he did a brilliant job of assimilating Beaumarchais’s characters and creating a fascinating, wholly original work that melds a world of ghosts from the eighteenth century, the theatrical world of opera, and the real, tragic world of the French Revolution. Here is how Corigliano describes it: “My opera The Ghosts of Versailles takes place on three different planes of reality: (1) the world of eternity, inhabited by the ghosts of Versailles, including the playwright Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette; (2) the world of the stage, inhabited by eighteenth century characters of Beaumarchais (Figaro, Susanna, the Count and Countess, etc.); and (3) the world of historic reality, primarily the reality of the French Revolution itself, populated by the characters of (1) and (2). Thus The Ghosts of Versailles represents a journey from the most fantastic to the most realistic.” The action is driven by Beaumarchais’s love of Marie Antoinette and his desire to reach back into history to change it in order to save her.

My only acquaintance with Corigliano’s music for this opera is from Phantasmagoria—Suite from ‘The Ghosts of Versailles’ (Naxos). Musically, Corigliano captures the three worlds within the opera with idiomatic ease and he portrays their occasional disorienting intersections with an attractive eeriness and spectral glow. The occasional uneasiness during his excursions into aleatory music is dramatically apt and perfectly expressive of the disorientation that occurs when ghosts, theatrical figures, and real people confusedly intermix. So there’s no reason to be scared by this aspect of the work. For most of the almost three-hour work, Corigliano musically inhabits the imagined worlds into which the action travels. And it travels fast. By this I mean the madcap pace that propels the characters forwards (or backwards) depending on which world they are traveling to or from. We hear snatches of Mozart and Rossini, and music that is both a parody and an apotheosis of their styles.

What we witness in the first act—after the harrowing scene of Marie Antoinette recalling her execution—is certainly opera buffa, full of mayhem and hilarious pranks that reminded me strongly of a Marx Brothers production. From Figaro’s aria to the section at the ambassador’s residence with Turkish singer Samira—mezzo-soprano Jenni Bank in the comic performance of a lifetime—one scene after another was hilariously funny. Ms. Bank has a wonderfully supple voice and she is first-class comedienne. One of the “you-had-to-have-been-there” moments was a singer in Valkyrie regalia walking across the stage holding a sign—the text of which she sings: “This is not opera. Wagner is opera.”

Act II segues from opera buffa to grand opera. The light mood returns whenever Figaro is present, but the grim realities of the French Revolution start closing in with the imprisonment of the aristocrats and Marie Antoinette. What did Corigliano mean when he described the journey from “the most fantastic to the most realistic”? The realism of which he spoke is not the literally gruesome death of Marie Antoinette, but a spiritual realism achieved in her acceptance of her culpability and of her death—even when offered an escape from it. What we see and hear in the Conciergerie prison scene is a very moving prayer and then an offered act of expiation. Though Corigliano does not write like Francis Poulenc, one cannot help but be reminded of the other great contemporary opera about the French Revolution—Dialogue of the Carmelites. The self-transcendence Marie Antoinette achieves in the “moment of peace” at the end of act two is redolent of Blanche’s embrace of the guillotine at the end of Dialogue and is conveyed in music that reminded me of the sublime closing scene of Richard Strauss’s opera Daphne, when the principal character is magically transformed into a tree.

As Marie Antoinette, soprano Melinda Whittington came into her own in the second act. She has a powerful voice that I thought was a bit too stridently employed in her first scenes, which, admittedly, required her to express the nightmare through which Marie Antoinette had lived. However, the second act allowed her to show the great nuance of which her voice is capable. It was very moving in the prayer scene and final aria.

This opera offers so many substantial roles that it requires a very strong cast. The Filene Young Artists have the requisite vocal strengths. Not only that, but the acting was excellent throughout. Standouts included baritone Morgan Pearse as Figaro, tenor Robert Watson in a deliciously nuanced portrayal of the villain Begearss, mezzo-soprano Sarah Larson as Susanna, soprano D’Ana Lombard as Rosina, and the perky soprano Amy Owens as Florestine. There wasn’t a weak link anywhere.

The stage direction by Louisa Muller was inspired lunacy. It’d be hard to imagine the opera being done with a greater sense of fun or, in the serious scenes, greater dramatic effectiveness. The costumes by David Woolard and the lighting by Robert H. Grimes were well-nigh perfect.

Because of the size of the Barns and the configuration of the stage, the orchestra was kept upstage behind a scrim. Once one got used to this, it was not a distraction and it certainly kept the orchestra from swamping the singers. Conductor Eric Melear kept order in the musical mayhem with a lively sense of pace.

I overheard Hoffman and Corigliano, who were seated right behind me, exclaiming their delight in a “wonderful production.” A sentiment I clearly share. And yet for all the high-spirited fun in The Ghosts, it is clear that something is at work in this opera at a much deeper level. When I met Corigliano for an interview ten years ago, he expressed his criticism of the dodecaphonic school that dominated so much of modern music, denoting “a lack of intellectual substance or content in serial music… It’s all ego, emotionally barren or angst-driven, and incapable of expressing joy. So, the audiences left, and the concert halls are becoming museums.” In short, “They ruined an art form.” In order to get it back, Corigliano made it clear that, “it is more moral to be understood than not to be understood.”

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, A return to grand style for Wolf Trap Opera with ‘Ghosts of Versailles’ (Washington Post, July 13)

Anne Midgette, An opera revisited, on a new scale (Washington Post, July 9)
In a monograph on Corigliano’s works, written by Mark Adamo, Corigliano said that, when working on The Ghosts of Versailles, “I suddenly saw a parallel between the French revolutionary decision to completely destroy the past—to not leave the single aristocrat’s head still attached to his shoulders—is weirdly analogous to the kind of fanatical… purism, I guess you’d say, in contemporary musical thought when I was growing up. For example, I remembered Pierre Boulez’s pronouncement of how any composer who refused to see the historical necessity of twelve-tone writing was useless.” The elevation of incomprehensibility as a virtue in modern music, Corigliano said, is the “toxic legacy of curdled Romanticism, in which the artist becomes less a servant of society and more of god unto himself—and the more cruel and arbitrary a god, the better.”

For anyone who lived through this period of alienation, Corigliano’s words are like water in the desert—and so is the music in The Ghosts of Versailles. This opera is itself part of the recovery of modern music and thus a cause for celebration.

The remaining performances are on Wednesday, June 15, and Saturday, June 18.


Unknown said...

When purchasing ticket, I received warning about obstructed view of subtitles. Much more important would have been a warning about damage to patron's hearing from absurdly high sound level. I started in 2nd row and the sound level was excruciating. Being 3 feet from a soprano singing near top volume is painful! I moved to an empty seat near back for 2nd act.

Re: opera/performance: Details of score were lost with orchestra at rear of stage. Memorable tunes? I din't detect any on first hearing. Even slimed down, the piece is too big for a small hall like the Barns.

Unknown said...

Suppressing legitimate comments is not a good thing. Or perhaps there was a strong reason not to publish my comment from yesterday?

Charles T. Downey said...

Just takes some time to approve comments that are not spam. Thanks for reading -- and commenting!

jfl said...

Did that have to do with amplification issues or was it just the lady in question who had such a piercing organ?

Unknown said...

There was no amplification used. Many of the singers had huge voices, that were unpleasant to listen to at close range. And more suited to much larger halls.

jfl said...

Oh, "The Barns", I see. Should have read the damn article more carefully. My bad.