Composers lucky enough to earn commissions from the Metropolitan Opera face not just the challenge of writing a good opera, but also the pressure to produce one of sufficient scope and magnitude to take place in the nation’s largest and most prestigious opera house. Especially back when world premieres were rarer, the result could be more grandiose than grand, a condition generally attributed to Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (1966).
Since the Met’s first season at Lincoln Center, which saw, besides Antony and Cleopatra, Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra,twenty-four years went by before the company in 1991 presented its next world premiere: the “grand opera buffa” Ghosts of Versailles,which is currently enjoying a spirited revival at the Glimmerglass Festival outside Cooperstown, New York. The opera, by John Corigliano with a libretto by William M. Hoffman, is hardly known for its restraint. It is derived in part from Beaumarchais’ La Mère coupable, the third of his trilogy of Figaro plays, which never engendered a definitive operatic counterpart (unlike Le Barbier de Séville and Le Mariage de Figaro); Darius Milhaud’s dour opera of the same name has understandably never found popular favor.
It really doesn’t take all that much imagination to buy into the conceit, but one may still object to aspects of the work’s freewheeling approach.
La Mère coupable includes two romantically involved characters unfamiliar to those who know Beaumarchais solely from Rossini’s and Mozart’s operatic classics: Léon, an illegitimate son of Countess Almaviva (Rosina) and Chérubin (Cherubino); and Florestine, an illegitimate daughter of Count Almaviva. Ghosts duly incorporates Léon and Florestine, but the couple plays a relatively minor role in an elaborate structure, in which the dramatis personae fall into three groups: ghosts, which include Beaumarchais, Marie Antoinette, and Louis XVI, among others; dramatic characters from Beaumarchais’s dramas; and mortals. (As with Wagner’s Ring, mortals are the least important.)
The utterly fanciful nature of Ghosts is evident from its core premise: Beaumarchais has fallen in love with Marie Antoinette and believes that, by writing a new opera—here he is not just a playwright but, like Wagner, also composer and librettist—he can change the course of history and free Marie from the guillotine. One wonders (but is never told) whether Beaumarchais became repentant for all the trouble his plays caused the upper class. (Le Mariage de Figaro, as a play, was banned under emperor Joseph II, yet Mozart was allowed to proceed with his opera.)
It really doesn’t take all that much imagination to buy into the conceit, but one may still object to aspects of the work’s freewheeling approach. Much of the action takes place in a play-within-a-play format, as the ghosts watch the characters caught up in the intrigues of Beaumarchais’ new opera. But Ghosts has a self-consciousness that detracts from its effectiveness and contributes to a sense of artificiality. It sometimes makes fun of itself for being an opera. At one particularly fraught moment, a character exclaims, “It’s only an opera!” resulting in humor that is best described as sophomoric.
Elsewhere, Corigliano and Hoffman didn’t seem to know when to quit. The climactic scene in the first of the opera’s two acts, set in the Turkish Embassy in Paris, contains an example of musical exoticism that is purely gratuitous, but which wouldn’t be so bad if its principal number, a big double aria sung by Samira, “a sultry Egyptian singer” (Marilyn Horne in the original production), were not so inane. In the ensuing madcap ensemble, Corigliano works in a quotation from Tristan.
Yet despite its faults, Ghosts wins out in the end. The contrived plot, which turns on an attempt to sell a necklace of Marie Antoinette’s to finance her flight, moves swiftly, and one becomes involved in the characters’ situations, even if a suspension of disbelief is sometimes necessary. Corigliano’s score is virtuosic and breathtakingly eclectic. The modernistic wisps and tingles that characterize the ghosts orchestrally are superbly balanced by some of the most ingratiating Mozart pastiches one is ever likely to hear, most notably in a duet for Cherubino and the Countess that blossoms into a quartet involving Marie Antoinette and Beaumarchais. And the composer’s skill in writing for voices is everywhere apparent, even in the score’s more ambitiously modern moments.
The Ghosts of Versailles is not an opera that allows a director much interpretive leeway, and the production by Jay Lesenger does its best to keep things lucid. Ghosts are grouped on either side of the stage, from which vantage points they view the action of Beaumarchais’ new opera clustered in the middle. In lieu of a separate stage for the latter, as specified in the score, James Noone’s décor frames the mortals’ action with attractive panels and doors in eighteenth-century style, while the ghosts, dressed in elaborate white period costume designed by Nancy Leary, inhabit a distinctly murkier realm (lighting by Robert Wierzel).
Heading the large and able cast (on July 25), Yelena Dyachek brought a voice of lustrous resonance to Marie Antoinette in an affecting portrayal, and Jonathan Bryan, singing in an attractive baritone, was at once authoritative and sympathetic as Beaumarchais. Figaro’s big aria has some reflective moments that may suggest approaching middle age, but the irrepressible character is otherwise as sprightly as ever; Ben Schaefer handled the role’s musical and dramatic challenges deftly.
As the opera’s villain, Bégearss, Christian Sanders made a vivid impression in the slimy aria in which the spy for the Revolution likens himself to a worm. Kayla Siembieda (Susanna), Joanna Latini (Rosina), Brian Wallin (the Count), Emily Misch (Florestine), Spencer Britten (Léon), Katherine Maysek (Cherubino), and Gretchen Krupp (Samira) all made strong contributions. The Met canceled its projected revival in 2009–10 on financial grounds—a questionable decision—but in 2009 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the opera was performed in a reduced orchestration for the first time, which was the basis of the vibrant performance led by Joseph Colaneri heard here. In 2015 the Los Angeles Opera presented the opera with the original orchestration in performances captured on commercial CDs. The Ghosts of Versailles, a co-production with Château de Versailles Spectacles, runs at Glimmerglass through August 23.