By Charles T. Downey
WASHINGTON, D.C. – For opera to thrive, companies must be willing to commission new works and, just as important, to revive recent operas so they can be heard more than once. Two summer festivals near Washington did their part, premiering a new comedy and reviving one of the great operatic successes of the late 20th century.
Wolf Trap Opera, a young artist training program based in a national park in a far Virginia suburb of the District, aimed high with its first production of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, heard at its final performance on July 18. A “grand opera buffa” (Corigliano’s term) commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for its centennial celebration, Ghosts was sized in every way to the cavernous proportions of the Met, where it received its premiere in 1991. Although critics and audiences met the new work with approval, the performing demands of Ghosts – a vast orchestra in the pit and another on the stage, a large cast with many demanding roles – meant that it was rarely revived. Los Angeles Opera’s staging last February was the only full production of the work in the 21st century.
Wolf Trap’s indoor venue, a small theater known as The Barns, has a pit far too small for Corigliano’s orchestra, even in the reduced orchestration made by John David Earnest for Opera Theater of Saint Louis in 2009. In a solution that was far from ideal, the orchestra sat at the back of the stage behind a scrim, with the singers watching the conductor on a small screen placed discreetly among the footlights.
The stage was extended out over the orchestra pit, allowing director Louisa Muller more room to give an approximation of the equally expansive story, involving the ghosts of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette after their executions, and the playwright Beaumarchais, who offers this spectral Versailles court a performance of his new play. It is based loosely on La mère coupable, the third part of Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, but in it the playwright hopes somehow to undo history and save the Queen, with whom he is in love.
Wolf Trap Opera’s director, Kim Pensinger Witman, travels the country for a good part of the year, hearing auditions from hopeful young singers for each summer season. She was able to fill out the cast list with a number of impressive voices, none more so than Tennessee-born soprano Melinda Whittington, who riveted attention as Marie Antoinette. To this central role Whittington brought a powerhouse voice that more than filled the intimate space of The Barns. But just as importantly, her acting brought to life the queen’s dignity, fragility, and innocence, incarnated musically in the motif from her Act I aria (“Once there was a golden bird”) that runs throughout the score.
Timothy Bruno, a bass born in Ohio, was a wry Louis XVI, and Virginia Beach native Will Liverman made an earnest Beaumarchais, although both of them together could not quite match Whittington in intensity. In the opera within the opera, Morgan Pearse was not always securely on pitch in the patter-rich role of Figaro, while mezzo-soprano Jenni Bank brought the house down in the extended send-up of Turkish music sung by her character, Samira. In the supporting cast, soprano Amy Owens was astounding in Corigliano’s stratospheric writing for Florentine, and the ensemble was generally so strong that the indisposition of the singer playing Bégearss, whose words were read by someone else from the wings, did not detract too much from the overall effect.
Wilson Chin’s sets took advantage of the limited space, reusing some of the same pieces seen last month in the company’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Muller created a delicious sense of mayhem in the riotous end to the first act. (A soprano in a horned helmet loudly declares, “This is not opera. Wagner is opera,” as the curtain falls.) Conductor Eric Melear kept the ensemble train solidly on the rails, somehow managing to get the balances right between his musicians and the singers behind him.
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Further south, in Virginia’s Rappahannock County, the late Lorin Maazel established the Castleton Festival, drawing young orchestral musicians and singers to his country house for an apprenticeship program that has produced operas and concerts each summer since 2009. Since Maazel’s unexpected death, one year ago mid-Festival, the Castleton board and Maazel’s widow, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, have struggled to keep the festival afloat. A reduced budget this summer has meant a smaller orchestra and fewer performances, with jazz taking over from classical music during a residency by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in the final two weeks of the festival.
Despite the belt-tightening, Castleton still took a chance on Scalia/Ginsburg, a new comic opera with music and libretto by Derrick Wang about the legal sparring and behind-the-bench friendship of the eponymous Supreme Court justices. Given workshop presentations here and there for the past two years, the work received its official world premiere production at Castleton on July 11; I heard the final performance on July 19.
The character of Justice Antonin Scalia, played with smug certainty and sometimes tentative high notes by tenor John Overholt, opens the opera with an aria on his originalist ideas about the U.S. Constitution, in a laser-accurate imitation of a Handel aria, down to the harpsichord continuo. Scalia’s certainty in his own dissent causes the statues in the hall of the Supreme Court, placed between tall Ionic columns on the set designed by Julia Noulin-Mérat, to come to life. The statue known as the Commentator, sung with judgmental force by Adam Cioffari, imposes three trials on Scalia. Suddenly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sung by Canadian soprano Ellen Wieser, intrudes on the proceedings, unexpectedly defending her colleague and embracing their confrontational legal relationship. (See libretto here; Justice Ginsberg talked about the opera briefly in an Opera America conference video beginning here.)
As a composer, Wang has shown himself a top-notch mimic, and his technique of weaving together pastiches of famous music ties into the historical tradition of operatic parody that has been largely forgotten since the 18th century. Snippets of Handel (the Largo from Xerxes, among others), the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the Christmas carol “The First Noel,” Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Puccini’s La bohème, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Verdi’s La traviata, Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, and even Heinrich Isaac’s song “Insbruck, ich muß dich laßen” are woven ingeniously into the texture, in a way reminiscent of Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach parodies. Mozart’s operas figure large in this process, with many musical allusions to The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute.
Unfortunately, somewhere in the midst of the second trial, Wang lost his way, straying from the snappy repartee and musical parody and getting too deep into the weeds of legal jargon, lionizing the justices, and finally coming to a resolution as both justices fulfill their dreams of becoming opera singers. (This is a nod to their real-life love of opera; Justice Ginsburg has been in attendance at every opera opening night I have witnessed in Washington.) The opera’s last number in particular, about the frozen lime soufflé that was a specialty of Justice Ginsburg’s late husband, goes on interminably. This taxed Wieser slightly in her portrayal of Ginsburg, who must sing in a range of styles, from jazz and Gospel to big-boned Strauss to Offenbach waltzes, not all of which she mastered as completely as one might hope.
The length of the work made its pairing on a double-bill with Ravel’s L’heure espagnole a long evening in the theater, and inevitably prompted comparisons of Wang’s rough and ready use of the orchestra with Ravel’s unctuous and infinitely colored orchestration. Conductor Salvatore Percacciolo made the most of both, with his young musicians given more opportunities to shine by Ravel.
Charles T. Downey is a freelance reviewer for the Washington Post and other publications. He is the moderator of ionarts.org, a Web site on classical music and the arts in Washington, D.C.