John Corigliano (Music) and William M. Hoffman’s (Libretto) “The Ghosts of Versailles” was originally commissioned for the centennial of The Metropolitan Opera premiering in 1991, and it feels like a glorious, bursting at the seams birthday card to opera and all its traditions and past glories and all its potential and present day power to amuse, ravish and inspire. It is a feast for the senses. Under Jay Lesenger’s direction, it engages you almost continuously through its three-hour running time.
Corigliano and Hoffman set about to adapt Pierre Beaumarchais third play of his Figaro trilogy “The Guilty Mother,” the only one not yet adapted into an opera after the classics “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” They chose a framing device of the ghosts wandering disconsolately in the Versailles Theater “bored as an egg…or a potato” in the after-life. Beaumarchais, who has an enormous love for Marie Antoinette, uses all his powers of creation to amuse the Queen and satisfy her desire to live, “O time, give me back my stolen years” by reimagining the Count Almaviva household and inserting the Queen in the play’s action.
The opera opens before the curtain speech with 18th century aristocrats, the court of Louis XVI (Peter Morgan, splendid) are the ghosts, dressed all in white and ambling onto the stage behind a string curtain that holds line drawings of Marie Antoinette (a terrifically affecting, haunting, heartbreaking and magisterial Yelena Dyachek) and seating themselves in a spectral all white set and being draped by a sheer curtain by livery, once seated. Once Beaumarchais’ (played with a winning command and ardor by Jonathan Bryan) creation, “A Figaro For Antonia” explodes onto the stage replacing the languor and the dissonance of the afterlife, the story within a story are all in bright, saturated colors (purple, green, yellow) and the set pieces are obvious set cut-outs of doors, trees and screens. The joy and exuberance of Figaro (lovably played with open-faced guilelessness by Ben Schaefer), his story as servant with his wife Susanna (the lovely and lively Kayla Siembieda) and music bound onto the stage and delight. There is a third strain to the story as Begearss (the terrific Christian Sanders who when not biting off phrases is luxuriating in the very odd ode to “The Worm”), a character who has been promised Count Almaviva’s (the strong Brian Wallin) daughter, is also a revolutionary and has a secret desire to destroy the Count bringing in stark outlines of the guillotine and the historical Marie’s fate. There are musical allusions to the classics and the first act ends in an over-the-top scene in the Turkish Embassy with Figaro taking on the role of a belly dancer to steal a necklace. Great work by the Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel. Chaos ensues ringing down the curtain with joy.
The orchestra, under the direction of Conductor Joseph Colaneri, effortlessly thrills with their commitment to this difficult and ever-changing score. Oscar winner Corigliano described wanting to “make a world of smoke and flux,” the sound of smoke rising, gathering, clouding and dissipating only to be replaced by another plume…somehow the orchestra makes this easy to imagine.
The physical production is superb. Creating the three worlds of the opera so effectively, economically and attractively are the terrific set designer James Noone, lighting designer Robert Wierzel and special mention to the sumptuous costumes of designer Nancy Leary.
This is a modern epic opera that thrilled me with its resonance and playfulness hitting on emotional, spiritual, and political themes. It worked both big and small with major shifts in tone and style, but the most affecting moments of the night were between two or a hauntingly beautiful quartet between Marie and Beaumarchais and the young lovers Cherubino (Katherine Maysek) and Florestine (Emily Misch). You can feel like royalty or a ghost; see this awesome production and brag that you’ve seen it before it moves on to the real Versailles.
Tickets thru August 23