The Guillotine Haunts The Ghosts of Versailles

United StatesUnited States Corigliano: The Ghosts of VersaillesLA Opera, James Conlon (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 7.2.2015-1.3.2015  (JRo)

The Ghost of Versailles Photo (c) Craig Matthew/LA Opera
The Ghost of Versailles
Photo (c) Craig Matthew/LA Opera

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

In this achingly beautiful 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, give voice to the “headless” figures. Aerial performers float by, balconies harbor spectral characters. These aristocratic ghosts remain trapped in the horrific past, haunted by the guillotine of 200 years ago.

Loosely basing their work on The Guilty Mother (La Mère Coupable), Beaumarchais’ final play of The Figaro Trilogy, Corigliano and 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 this audience pepper the performance. The play-within-a-play structure brings to mind the delightfully anarchic 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. In the Prokofiev, one watches a wacky fairytale unfold, but Hoffman’s tale is so complicated that in attempting to understand the whys and wherefores, one is occasionally distracted from the music.

The Beaumarchais plot, 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 the hand of Florestine to a Tartuffe-like toady, Begearss, who 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.

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, and Beaumarchais must enter the play to tame his characters. Joining him, Marie winds up being imprisoned again, and is rescued by Figaro and Beaumarchais.

Nostalgic, melancholy, hilarious, tragic, and carnivalesque 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 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. The score is layered and complex yet approachable and moving. Corigliano even conjures Gilbert and Sullivan in Figaro’s Act I 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 I’s “Come Now, My Darling.” The song begins with Cherubino, expands into a luxurious duet with Rosina, and 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 as 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 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. LuPone, unlike Horne, needs amplification, but 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.

Jane Rosenberg

3 thoughts on “The Guillotine Haunts <i>The Ghosts of Versailles</i>”

  1. over the top production : can not be missed! I enjoyed every minutes of it and plan to go 2nd time: it is just too much to digest in one setting

  2. Over the top production indeed–also bloated and the Samira episode in questionable taste. I suspect that LAO (and Hoffman and Corigliano) are trying to get more people into the theater, and this probably worked. I can also understand the precedents set by Mozart (Abduction from the Seraglio) and Rossini (Turk in Italy, Italian Woman in Algeria). But the curtain calls had the audience booing Robert Brubaker’s character, rather than applauding his very good performance.
    As the intrusive Valkyrie at the end of the first act points out (right before receiving a pie in the face!!!) this isn’t opera; it’s a good time at the thee-ay-ter. Gah!


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