Versailles’ Ghosts Reconvene At Site Where Tale Began

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In the first production of John Corigliano’s ‘The Ghosts of Versailles’ to be staged in the palace’s opera house, Marie Antoinette (Teresa Perrotta) relives the horror of her execution. (Photos © Pascal Le Mée / Château de Versailles Spectacles)

VERSAILLES – The Ghosts of Versailles had its French premiere at the Opéra Royal of the Palace of Versailles on Dec. 4, on the eve of a major national strike. The announcement that all performances would proceed in spite of the anti-government demonstrations had a let-them-eat-cake tone, ironically fitting for John Corigliano and William Hoffman’s backward look at the French Revolution. But for those who could reach the theater, the talented, enthusiastic, and experienced company from the Glimmerglass Festival made a persuasive case for this most American treatment of the Old World.

Beaumarchais (Jonathan Bryan) adjusts Marie Antoinette’s necklace.

Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for its centennial season, Corigliano’s first opera finally made it to the stage in 1991; it played a total of 13 performances in two different seasons. The sleeping beauty lay largely dormant until 2009, when a slightly reduced (read: more economical) version was premiered by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It’s still a big project, but more manageable for mid-sized companies and smaller stages.

Jay Lesenger’s production, created for Glimmerglass in the summer of 2019, marked a number of firsts: the French premiere of Ghosts, the first performance in more than 200 years of a work by a living composer at the Opéra Royal, and the debut of the Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal (playing modern instruments despite the name). Surprisingly, it was Corigliano’s first-ever visit to Versailles. James Noone’s simple sets, enhanced with Robert Wierzel’s lighting design, divided the stage into three levels, with fore-, middle-, and background used separately or in combination, thanks to drop curtains and sliding panels, to suggest the layering of time. Nancy Leary’s simplified period costumes dressed the ghosts in white and Beaumarchais’s characters in vivid colors.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was an adventurer of many talents, probably best remembered for his trilogy of Figaro plays. The plot of Ghosts derives loosely from La Mère coupable (The Guilty Mother), the lesser-known sequel to Beaumarchais’s earlier The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, which were wildly successful as spoken theater and in contemporary operatic adaptations by Rossini, Mozart, and others. After the comic machinations of Barber and the social upheaval laid bare in Marriage, Beaumarchais pulled his punches in The Guilty Mother with an innocuous story of young lovers overcoming parental obstacles – the parents being the Almavivas, each of whom has produced a love child.

Figaro (Ben Schaefer) is in trouble with all, including Susanna (Kayla Siembieda, right),

With this third scenario as a point of departure, Ghosts casts Beaumarchais as the protagonist, whose love for Marie Antoinette drives the rambling plot. Beaumarchais offers to write a play that will revise history and allow the traumatized queen to survive the Revolution. In a prologue set in an aristocratic afterlife, Beaumarchais introduces the dramatis personae to the bored ghosts of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the court. Figaro, Susanna, Cherubino, Rosina, and Almaviva are joined by the Almavivas’ illegitimate offspring, Leon and Florestine, and later, the vengeful double agent Bégearss.

To The Guilty Mother’s conventional plot of young love requited and infidelity forgiven, Hoffmann and Corigliano added material from history and from Beaumarchais’s biography. Almaviva’s scheme to sell the queen’s diamond necklace to buy her freedom is based on a royal scandal; in the opera, it ultimately leads to everyone’s arrest and condemnation by Bégearss, a villain of the first order. Set pieces, like the Turkish divertissement that closes the first act, written as a cameo for Marilyn Horne, provide humor and variety (and here, a lithe bevy of singing belly dancers).

Ghosts of Louis XVI and his courtiers desire entertainment.

The piece is packed with in-jokes: Mozart quotations, situations from the earlier operas, and even a Walküre walk-on. Comedy is tempered with sober reminders of the French Revolution, with a screaming mob and a guillotine atop a scaffold. And the love that motivates Beaumarchais’s gesture, and Marie Antoinette’s ultimate sacrifice, gets full attention in lovely arias and duets. At times the antic pace reminded me of Candide, another clever 20th-century piece set in the 18th century. As with Bernstein’s popular work, the agglomeration of styles sometimes robbed momentum, and during the toe-tapping music accompanying the revolutionary mob, I briefly wondered whether I’d wandered into Les Miz.

The performance itself was top-notch – it was a pleasure to attend a “premiere” where the material had already had enough performances to gel, especially in a piece so dependent on comic timing. The young artists from the Glimmerglass Festival recreated their effervescent and well-oiled teamwork, with some fine individual performances. The mellifluous-sounding baritone Jonathan Bryan was suavely persuasive as Beaumarchais. The bright-voiced tenor Christian Sanders was charismatic as Bégearss. As Marie Antoinette, soprano Teresa Perrotta (covering for Yelena Dyachek) conveyed the queen’s wistful sadness in a sweet, rich voice reminiscent of Teresa Stratas, the original Marie Antoinette. The celestial-sounding trio of Rosina (Joanna Latini), Susanna (Kayla Siembieda), and Almaviva’s daughter Florestine (Emily Misch) gave these women some of their best moments.

Conductor Joseph Colaneri brought his usual skill to this complex score, though the newly formed orchestra occasionally sounded scrappy and sometimes covered the singers. At times, the work itself, with its large ensemble numbers and sizable percussion section, seemed to overwhelm the small theater, even in its revised and reduced version. Too American for the ancien régime? In any case, the audience reception was warm, even if the French translations didn’t quite convey all the jokes.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!