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Friday, July 26, 2019

The Chance of a Ghost

THE GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES are there to greet you as you settle into your theater seat. They’re garbed in white; they languish in the gloom behind a scrim of, essentially, many strings. The stage is bathed in blue. The music starts – a plangent peal of woodwinds joined by a chorus of high strings – and more ghostly figures drift from the wings.

Brian Wallin, Emily Mirsch, Joanna Latini,
Kayla Siembieda, and Ben Schaefer
Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival
The Ghosts of Versailles is the 1991 opera by John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman, inspired by the life and times of the polymath Beaumarchais, the man best known for his plays “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” He wrote a third Figaro play, titled “The Guilty Mother,” which becomes an opera-within-an-opera in this metafictional piece.

It’s a piece with a large cast, calling for the considerable resources that the Glimmerglass Festival has been able to lavish upon it – and a spectacular production is the result. “Another evening at the opera,” say a woman in the ghost audience. “I’m so bored,” declares a nearby man, winning a laugh from an audience puzzled at the outset by the keening sounds and haunted stagescape (with varied and thrilling set design by James Noone). The candelabra on the curving walls that dominate center stage suggest Cocteau; although these fixtures are still, the music’s unearthly sounds make the stillness seem animate.

Marie-Antoinette (Yelena Dyachek), clad in white, resembles the notorious first version of the painting La Reine en Gaulle, which depicted her in muslin. She was known to be less regal than the position demanded, and, in fact, had performed in the stage version of “The Marriage of Figaro” with her own theatrical company before the script had been approved for public performance.

So there was a relationship between her and Beaumarchais. He, too, stands among the ghostly court, witnessing Marie-Antoinette’s continued misery over her fate. “To make you laugh is all my art,” he tells her, but it’s not enough to overcome her memory of blood on steel. The playwright is in love with her and will use his art to change the course of history.  “You were supposed to live,” he says, going on to anticipate the effect of his entertainment: “Vast theaters play our visions. Salons ring with unheard-of sounds.”

Jonathan Bryan sings the role of Beaumarchais (he’s also the Baron in this season’s La traviata) and brings splendid voice and a compelling sense of gravitas to the part. Which is important because he’s up against a pair of scene-stealers: Ben Schaefer as Figaro and Christian Sanders as the wonderfully detestable Bégearss. Had the audience been a little less inhibited the night I saw this, they would have booed Sanders during his bow – and they would have given him a deserved ovation for his aria “Long live the worm,” as compelling a musical portrait as Berlioz’s and Mussorgsky’s renderings of Mephistopheles’s flea.

“Beaumarchais! You promised us an opera!” commands the king, and the walls part to reveal a comic-opera set. “I will show you history as it should have been,” the playwright insists.

Yelena Dyachek and Jonathan Bryan
Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival
Figaro enters. His opening aria is a traditional let-me-introduce-myself piece, the details of which are muddied by Hoffman’s weakness of rhyme, but the arc of which is admirable, as Figaro metaphorically heads for the stars (while perched atop a ladder) and is brought down again by the creditors who are ever in pursuit. Schaefer sports the requisite charm, and we’re prepared to count on his cleverness to subvert a plot by Bégearss to swipe a diamond necklace that Count Almaviva intends to sell, a necklace stolen from the queen, I think – but it doesn’t matter. Beaumarchais’s intention is to prevent the French Revolution, and the necklace is going to help. Suffice it to say that the Queen’s necklace did exist, but otherwise bears no relation to this fanciful manifestation, which mixes the jewelry into the “Guilty Mother” plot, already laden with mistaken identity and thwarted love. 

“The Guilty Mother” brings back the familiar characters of Rosina and Cherubino (Joanna Latini and Katherine Maysek), whose lovely love-duet, “Come now, my darling,” plays against a Boucher-inspired backdrop. It’s echoed by Beaumarchais and Antonia (as he terms Marie-Antoinette) in a scene reminiscent of the best of Così fan tutte.

A salute to the 18th-century fascination with Janissary bands whisks us to the Turkish embassy, where we’re entertained by exotic dancers and swordsmen, as the shako-topped Suleyman Pasha (the drily amusing Wm. Clay Thompson) attempts to keep control. There’s a star-turn cameo in the role of Samira, sung with a star’s assurance by Gretchen Krupp, before all hell breaks loose. Cleverness is sacrificed to chaos, which isn’t as witty, but it justifies ringing down the first-act curtain.   

If the spirit of Beaumarchais was controlling Act One, something more fundamental and fatalistic takes over the rest of the story. “My words have power. My music has power,” the playwright insists, but Figaro begins going off-script. Beaumarchais is upset, and sees only one way to save his beloved queen: he enters the opera. “Change the past and you lose your power,” he’s warned, but he’ll risk it.

Tucker Reed Breder, Christian Sanders,
and members of the ensemble
Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival
Susanna (Kayla Siembieda), now Figaro’s wife, sings a duet with Rosina (Almaviva’s wife) about the inconstancy of husbands (“As summer brings a wistful breeze”), a beautifully written,  beautifully sung piece that should have a life of its own.

Mozart is again saluted when Beaumarchais enters the scene à la Don Giovanni’s Il Commendatore; there’s even a snatch of “Se vuol ballare” along the way. But this otherwise is pure Corigliano, delighting in the past but with a contemporary voice that able to suit the music of the text and to color it all with innovative instrumental textures. 

It won’t spoil any surprise to note that the proceedings go from comic to bleak as the Revolution intrudes. A high point is reached at the lowest point of despair with the quintet “O god of love, o lord of light,” sung by Almaviva (Brian Wallin) and Rosina, Florestine and Léon (the young lovers, sung by Emily Misch and Spencer Britten), and Susanna – soon joined, from her separate prison cell, by Marie-Antoinette.

“The Revolution fails!” cries Beaumarchais, fighting his powerlessness to change things. “A new age dawns! Antonia lives! History as it should have been!” But it’s not to be. “Thank you for my moment of peace,” sings Marie-Antoinette in her final, melancholy aria. “The Guilty Mother” needed the 20th century’s more flexible approach to dramma giocoso for this story to be created and to work so well. Conductor Joseph Colaneri masterfully brought us the difficult score, and director Jay Lesenger moved us from spookiness to comic chaos to unaffected love with conviction and a twinkle in the eye. The Ghosts of Versailles is such a huge, difficult piece that you’re not going to get the chance to see it very often; take advantage of this Glimmerglass Festival production. It runs through August 23, and there’s ticket info here.

The Ghosts of Versailles

Music by John Corigliano
Libretto by William M. Hoffman
Conducted by Joseph Colaneri
Directed by Jay Lesenger
The Glimmerglass Festival
Cooperstown, NY, July 25, 2019

1 comment:

Sasha Margolis said...

Another beautifully detailed and wonderfully informed review, Byron