By Jane Rosenberg
Los Angeles. In an achingly beautiful LA Opera production, the ghosts of monarchies and revolutions past materialize before our eyes at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. We are enveloped in an exquisite postmodern version of Marie Antoinette’s little theatre at Versailles, awash in dusty blues and pearlescent greens. It is the world of John Corigliano’s opera, The Ghosts of Versailles.
The eerie chords of an illusive melody open the scene. Dancers in white courtly attire, their heads shrouded in black to suggest decapitation, glide across the stage. Singers dressed in eighteenth century black gowns and suits, their faces and hair ashen white, give voice to the “headless” figures. Aerial performers float by, balconies harbor spectral characters. Though we are two hundred years in the future, these aristocratic ghosts remain trapped in the horrific past, haunted by the guillotine.
Loosely based on The Guilty Mother (La Mère Coupable), Beaumarchais’ final play of The Figaro Trilogy, Corigliano and his librettist, William M. Hoffman, create a complex wraparound story involving the ghost of Beaumarchais along with the beheaded spirits of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and their court. In order to cheer the sorrowful queen, whom Beaumarchais loves, the playwright produces an entertainment starring that irrepressible jack-of-all-trades, Figaro.
The aristocracy sits attentively before the proscenium of Marie’s stage on which the play, The Guilty Mother, unfolds. Comments from the audience pepper the performance. The play within a play structure brings to mind the delightfully anarchistic Prokofiev opera, The Love for Three Oranges, where Tragedians, Comedians, Romanticists, and Empty Heads quibble over the plot. One wishes the similarities were more pronounced. Where Prokofiev’s structure involves watching a wacky fairytale unfold, Hoffman’s unfolding tale is so complicated that in attempting to understand the whys and wherefores, one is occasionally distracted from the music.
The Beaumarchais story, as it appears on Marie’s stage, goes like this: While Count Almaviva was in South America for three years, his wife, Rosina, slept with her former page, Cherubino. The result was a son, Léon. Almaviva, also unfaithful, had a daughter, Florestine. Of course the two children meet and fall in love. But Almaviva has promised a Tartuffe-like toady, Begearss, the hand of Florestine. Begearss is up to no good. He is a revolutionary with the heart of a greedy monster. Figaro and his wife, Susanna, must save the day.
So goes the outline of Beaumarchais’ plot, but this is no simple play within a play or opera within an opera. Another storyline involving Marie’s diamond necklace, which finds its way from the ghost world into the play world, becomes a pivotal element. Figaro rebels from the confines of the plot. Beaumarchais must enter the play to tame his characters. Marie, joining him, winds up being imprisoned again, and is rescued by Figaro and Beaumarchais.
Nostalgic, melancholy, hilarious, tragic, and carnival-esque all at once, we appear to be in a postmodern universe, long on whimsy and likability but short on logic. Beaumarchais, calling himself a god, tells Marie he has the power to alter history – the power to save her from the guillotine and take her to America. Here we have the artist as god/creator. If we were in the throes of subtler storytelling, perhaps this notion would grow on us organically and would feel less like a contrivance.
The staging, directed by Darko Tresnjak, tries to avoid pitfalls by separating the world of the play from the ghost world. Beaumarchais’ characters live in a full-colored universe of bright costumes and vivid lighting. The proscenium of Marie’s little theatre becomes a jewel box and picture window onto this other dimension. Particularly effective are the various video projections (designed by Aaron Rhyne), which are framed by the proscenium: clouds rolling by, constellations in the night sky, a hot air balloon floating away.
Corigliano’s music is like a fragrant bouquet: Wisps of Neoclassical, ethereal melodies interspersed with Modernist dissonances, hints of Mozart and Rossini mingled with Richard Strauss. Layered and complex, the score is yet approachable and moving. Corigliano even conjures Gilbert and Sullivan in Figaro’s Act One aria, hilariously rendered by the lyric baritone of Lucas Meachem, who delights at every turn.
Perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful melody in the opera is Act One’s “Come Now, My Darling.” The song begins with Cherubino, expands into a luxurious duet with Rosina, then as the music subtly unwinds into ghostly echoes, Beaumarchais adds his voice. We regain the melody only to have Marie’s suffering cries come to the foreground. Beaumarchais reprises the theme and the four sing a spellbinding quartet.
With his fluid and commanding baritone, Christopher Maltman as Beaumarchais is every inch the impresario/author. As Rosina, Guanqun Yu delights the eye and ear with her lustrous soprano. She is courted by the impish Cherubino of mezzo Renée Rapier. Patricia Racette, singing Marie Antoinette, brings a tragic dignity to her role, especially heartbreaking in her aria “Once There Was A Golden Bird.”
The Count Almaviva of Joshua Guerrero is suitably grouchy for most of the opera but lacking in the charm that caught Rosina’s attention in the first place. As the conniving Begearss, Robert Brubaker is deliciously Dickensian, reveling in his “Aria of the Worm.” Figaro’s wife, Susanna, is winningly sung by mezzo-soprano, Lucy Schaufer.
The always luminous Stacey Tappan as Florestine and Brenton Ryan as an earnest Léon make a delightful pair of star crossed lovers. Ironic and irresistible, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Louis XVI brings a booming bass and great comedic timing to his curmudgeonly king.
The comedic prize of the evening, however, goes to Patti LuPone as Samira the Entertainer. It’s an eight minute cameo of memorable proportions as LuPone is carried in on a giant pink elephant to sing, mug, wiggle, and cavort across the stage to Philip Cokorinos Pasha. Inspired by Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, the role originated at the Met with the great mezzo Marilyn Horne. Though LuPone, unlike Horne, needs amplification, her skills more than compensate for the intrusion.
This West coast premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles is a coup for LA Opera, which has put together a production team of unparalleled skill and originality. It was Maestro James Conlon’s long held hope to bring this shimmering work, first commissioned by the Met, back to life in all its splendor. With his impeccable musicians, Conlon has once again added to the prestige of LA Opera.
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Marie Antoinette: Patricia Racette
Samira: Patti LuPone
Beaumarchais: Christopher Maltman
Begearss: Robert Brubaker
Figaro: Lucas Meachem
Susanna: Lucy Schaufer
Count Almaviva: Joshua Guerrero
Rosina (Countess Almaviva): Guanqun Yu
Florestine: Stacey Tappan
Léon: Brenton Ryan
Louis XVI: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Marquis: Scott Scully
Wilhelm: Joel Sorensen
Cherubino: Renée Rapier
Woman in a Hat: Victoria Livengood
Suleyman Pasha: Philip Cokorinos
English Ambassador: Museop Kim
Composer: John Corigliano
Librettist: William M. Hoffman
Conductor: James Conlon
Director: Darko Tresnjak
Scenery Designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer: Linda Cho
Lighting Designer: York Kennedy
Projection Designer: Aaron Rhyne
Chorus Director: Grant Gershon
Choreographer: Peggy Hickey
Photos courtesy of LA Opera.
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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets. Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children