LA Opera Conjures Corigliano’s ‘Ghosts’ And La Révolution

The Turkish Embassy scene in the LA Opera production of 'The Ghosts of Versailles.'  (Photo by Ben Gibb)
The Turkish Embassy scene in the LA Opera production of John Corigliano’s ‘The Ghosts of Versailles.’ 
(Photo by Ben Gibb)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — When composer John Corigliano and librettist William M. Hoffmann got the chance of a lifetime to write something for the Metropolitan Opera, which at that time hadn’t commissioned new works in decades, they took full advantage of the opportunity.  They threw everything they could into The Ghosts of Versailles — big stars, lavish settings, a huge orchestra and cast. It took them 12 years to pull it off, eight years past the due date, but they were rewarded with a hit opera in 1991. A recording of the Met production came out on laserdiscs and VHS, reportedly the first time a world-premiere recording of a new work had been issued on home video only. The piece seemed to be on its way.

Maria Antoinette (Patricia Racette) is doomed. (Craig Matthew)
Maria Antoinette (Patricia Racette) is doomed. (Craig Matthew)

Yet after a Met revival in 1994-95 and a Lyric Opera of Chicago version in 1995-96, The Ghosts faded into the woodwork in America, resurfacing only in a chamber version by Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Ireland’s Wexford Festival Opera in 2009. The Met wanted to revive it again in 2010, but the sheer expense in a sour economy scuttled those plans.

So now the newly emboldened Los Angeles Opera has stepped into the breach, lavishly putting together the first full production of The Ghosts, a West Coast premiere, since the turn of this century. And from what I could tell at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Feb. 7, the only reason why The Ghosts hasn’t punched its way into the repertoire is the mountain of cash involved in staging it. It’s a wonderful piece, and like some of the most durable operas of the past, it hits you on several levels and repays repeated hearings.

The original idea behind The Ghosts —  to make a viable opera out of the obscure third panel of  Beaumarchais’ trilogy of Figaro plays, La mère coupable (The Guilty Mother) — became only one component of a triplex of worlds that eventually melt into each other. In the ghost world, Beaumarchais is in love with Marie Antoinette (the authors made that up, but it’s not historically impossible) and tries to save her from the guillotine through the staging of his new comic opera.  That is where The Guilty Mother comes in: Our old friends in the Almaviva court are back in this opera-within-an-opera, but only fragments of the original plot are used.

Patti LuPone makes a cameo as an Egyptian singer. (Matthew)
Patti LuPone makes a cameo as an Egyptian singer. (Craig Matthew)

The French Revolution at its most violent and irrational forms the third world, the only real world of the three.  There are authentic historical elements like transcripts from Marie Antoinette’s kangaroo-court trial and a crucial diamond necklace prop that has its roots in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace scandal during Louis XVI’s reign. LA Opera’s production does not shy away from the worst excesses of the Revolution, depicting Marie’s trial in a grim scene with severed heads on poles, framed by smoke-filled skies like those common during Southern California brush fires.

In flitting among the three worlds, Corigliano provides a feast for musical sleuths. He raids his avant-garde vocabulary for aleatoric rustlings, clusters, and a creepy synthesizer, and his brass writing is brilliantly distinctive and slippery. He writes arias, recitatives, and often moving ensembles in accomplished neo-Classical or neo-Romantic styles, throwing in quotes and paraphrases from the famous Mozart and Rossini Figaro operas, adding The Magic Flute, Cosi fan tutte, and Don Giovanni for good measure. I even caught a shaft of Mussorgsky in Act II.

Corigliano gleefully sends up the 18th century’s Turkish mania with an outlandish scene in a Turkish embassy that is pure silly entertainment, with a comic cameo number for a visiting star (in L.A., it was Broadway’s Patti LuPone). The biggest laugh in the show comes in this scene when a helmeted lady appears completely out of context and bellows, “This is not opera! Wagner is opera!” In this production, she gets a pie in the face for her trouble.

Turns out, though, the Wagner lady is right: Corigliano and Hoffmann ultimately have unified the comic, serious, intimate and extravagant elements in this piece into an emotionally and intellectually all-encompassing experience, the very goal of Wagnerian music drama. And the last thing we hear in The Ghosts, as Beaumarchais and Marie are united by the Wagnerian redeeming power of love, is the radiant grail chord from Lohengrin.

Beaumarchais (Christopher Maltman) relives the Revolution. (Matthew)
Beaumarchais (Christopher Maltman) relives the Revolution. (Matthew)

The LA Opera production is set in a handsome, ornate, rococo-styled opera house, which frames the opera buffa  segments in a confined space, with video projections expanding the canvas. Stage director Darko Tresnjak had his hands full during some crowded scenes in Act I, with silent doppelgangers within the huge cast adding to the congestion, but he managed to keep things moving.

Among the many leads in the cast too numerous to cite here, Patricia Racette made Marie Antoinette a much more queenly figure than did the Met’s original, highly vulnerable Marie, Teresa Stratas. Lucas Meacham reveled in the many things Figaro had to do — among them singing Rossini-meets-Gilbert and Sullivan patter at warp-speed, romping around in drag, and revealing fiery egalitarian sympathies. Christopher Maltman gave Beaumarchais sonorous authority, Robert Brubaker played Bégearss with the requisite cartoonish villainy, and Stacey Tappan easily ascended Florestine’s flights way up in the musical stratosphere.

Figaro (Lucas Meacham) is beseiged by pursuers. (Matthew)
Figaro (Lucas Meacham) is besieged by pursuers. (Matthew)

It was the first time that James Conlon had conducted a contemporary opera more recent than Britten’s on the main stage since becoming LA Opera music director, and he revealed a flair for Corigliano’s flings at aleatoric color. Thankfully, he’ll be doing more of this sort of thing — Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick this fall — and he has expressed interest in a Corigliano opera-in-progress based on Dracula.

The Ghosts of Versailles, which repeats Feb. 15, 18, 21, and 26 and March 1, is the centerpiece of LA Opera’s Figaro Unbound festival, linking the Corigliano opera with performances of The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and a cavalcade of smaller opera and theater productions, seminars, lectures, films, workshops, and art exhibits throughout the region. The production is also being recorded for release — this time in audio only — on the PentaTone label.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.