Monday, June 22, 2009

Spiritual Values

The Ghosts of Versailles defies easy categorization. Composer John Corigliano describes it as "an entertaining [opera] buffa" that is "also a serious meditation on history and change: specifically, on how change comes about both in politics and in art". I'd describe it as an exceptionally smart piece of musical theatre that provokes both laughter and reflection. Either way, Opera Theatre of St. Louis's world premiere of this new performing version of the 1991 work (a co-production with the Vancouver and Wexford Festival opera companies) is a rousing success that deserves our attention.

In what the program notes describe as "a world beyond time", the ghosts of executed aristocrats haunt the palace where they once lived their pampered lives. Joining them is the spirit of playwright, diplomat and political visionary Pierre-Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais, who both mocked and defended those lives. In death, Beaumarchais has fallen in love with Marie Antoinette, who has never come to terms with the slanderous accusations - including forgery, swindling and incest - that were the pretext for her execution.

Beaumarchais declares that he will re-write history to save Marie Antoinette from the guillotine and (you should pardon the word) spirit her away to the New World by including these events in a new opera which he will stage for his fellow shades. Based on a play by the real Beaumarchais, L'autre Tartuffe, où La Mère Coupable (The New Tartuffe, or The Guilty Mother), the opera within an opera takes place twenty years after the events of The Marriage of Figaro. Beaumarchais's plan to use the former Barber of Seville to save the queen runs aground when Figaro has a sudden attack of class consciousness, however. When the playwright tries to set things right by becoming a character in his own plot things start to unravel and The Terror threatens to consume everyone all over again.

The breadth and depth of both William M. Hoffman's libretto and Corigliano's music are remarkable. The former combines conventional poetry, lofty prose, low comedy and philosophical discourse into a work that both celebrates and parodies the classic "well-made play". The latter ranges from ensembles of classically Mozartian elegance to a Rossini-style patter song (for Figaro, of course), to twelve-tone rows and clusters, a parody of middle-eastern wind music for a scene at the Turkish Embassy and even aleatoric segments that will probably change from one performance to another. There are also the expected in-jokes, including quotes from Mozart and Rossini and parodies of operatic conventions. At one point during the chaotic first act finale a character identified as The Woman in the Hat (Gerdine Young Artist Erin Holland) rushes downstage center and complains "This isn't opera! Wagner is opera!"

That all probably sounds like a bit of a mess, but on stage it coalesces into a compelling and highly entertaining evening that deftly combines the knockabout farce of the Beaumarchais adaptation with a sharp criticism of (in Corigliano's words) "modernists [who] demanded that we destroy, not merely rethink, the past to forge a new future". Real change, his view, can only come "by embracing the past (the opposed worlds of the commoner Beaumarchais and the regal Marie Antoinette) and moving into the future (as did that couple, finally united, in our opera)". He doesn't add (but I will) that the same could be said of life.

Some of the credit for the success of this production of Ghosts goes to Mr. Corigliano and Mr. Hoffman, who realized that their original version - written for the impressive technical facilities of the Metropolitan Opera - would need to be reworked if it were to have any life outside that lavish setting. Most of it, however, goes to Opera Theatre's stellar cast, musicians and design team.

With eighteen named roles, a trio of Gossips, an Opera Quartet (who, in a satirical jab at a certain type of opera fan, complain at length about how bored they are) and a corps of eight dancers, the cast of Ghosts stretches the Loretto Hilton center's thrust stage to its limits, but thanks to Stage Director James Robinson (who took on the equally daunting Nixon in China and Miss Havisham's Fire for OTSL with more uneven results) everything flows smoothly and Allen Moyer's relatively spare set never looks cluttered. If Mr. Moyer was also responsible for the ingenious use of projected images and video - a device which adds emotional and physical depth to the story - he deserves virtual applause for that as well.

The physical applause on Sunday night, of course, went to the uniformly talented cast. There are far too many of these wonderful performers to list them individually here - especially since the complete program is available at the OTSL web site - so I'll content myself with commenting on a few who struck me as particularly memorable. Your mileage may vary, as I'm so fond of saying.

Baritone James Westman and soprano Maria Kanyova carry the bulk of the show as Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette, and do so brilliantly. I defy anyone to witness Ms. Kanyova's heart-rending account of her character's trial and execution without being moved. Baritone Christopher Felgium and mezzo Dorothy Byrne are just right as the cheerfully wily Figaro and his equally sharp wife Susanna. Soprano Jeanette Vecchione and tenor Samuel Read Levine are charming as Almaviva-crossed lovers Florestine and Léon.

Villainy, meanwhile, is impressively represented by tenor Matthew DiBattista as Bégearss. The Act I aria in which Figaro's nemesis exults in the fact that others regard him as a "worm" is equal parts Iago and Poe ("That the play is the tragedy, Man,' / And its hero, the Conqueror Worm") and is delivered with great flair. Baritone Lee Gregory provides a nice comic balance as Bégearss's inept henchman Wilhelm.

Other fine performances include tenor Sean Panikkar's Almaviva, soprano Hanan Alattar's Rosina, and mezzo Elizabeth Batton's Samira, who provides the surrealist entertainment in the Turkish Embassy scene.

If the Opera Theatre orchestra were an Olympic team (which, in some respects, it may be), its members and conductor Michael Christie would be strong contenders for the gold. Corigliano's score is so complex and involves so much rapid-fire give and take among the pit orchestra, singers and off-stage musicians that it's impressive enough to see it performed at all, let alone this well. Congratulations to all concerned.

The bottom line on The Ghosts of Versailles is that it's a stunning achievement - not only musically and theatrically but technically as well. Performances continue through June 27th at the Loretto Hilton center on the Webster University campus. For ticket information, call 314-961-0644 or visit the web site at

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