Ghosts of Versailles: An Entertainment
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
As seen August 9, 2019
Ghosts of Versailles, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in celebration of its 100th anniversary, was seven years late in its opening, December 19, 1991. It has been trying to find its footing ever since. It has a special opportunity to mature at Glimmerglass since its composer, John Corigliano, is this season's artist in residence. It still seems to be a work in progress.
Its initial seven-performance run sold out, and it had an all-star cast, as The Met always does, it hasn't found a solid place in the American opera repertoire. Corigliano calls it a grand opera buffa, a large comic opera. To me, it is an entertainment, and entertaining it is.
The setting is grimly serious enough: it is set in an afterlife community of the court of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, all put to death by the new invention, the guillotine, during the early part of the French Revolution known as The Terror. The story is built on the imagined love of the playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. We know him as the author of the two plays on which the great “Figaro” operas are based.
At first, I saw echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which a mortal man is able, through his song, the enter the underworld to rescue his beloved wife who seems mysteriously to be ambivalent about the project. But, no, Beaumarchais is also a ghost. His life was contemporaneous with the Court, but his death was half a dozen years later. The core of the plot is that Beaumarchais is so madly in love with Marie that he is sure his powers (mostly ego?) can restore her to life at an earlier time, rescue her ahead of The Revolution, and change history.
She proves not interested in love or life, depressed over the circumstances of her beheading. Beaumarchais wins her over with a humorous opera, composed for the ghost audience, using the characters he created for his plays. The result is madcap comedy that has little to do with what the roles of the characters were in his plays. He seems to figure that Figaro, who is a lot like Beaumarchais himself, can do anything.
In this new, special-purpose opera, the characters soon depart from the script and pretty much undermine his intentions. He nevertheless succeeds in winning Marie's affection, and their hauntingly beautiful love duet provides a musical highlight. She decides against trying to change history, so their romance is forever confined to the world of the dead.
The production provided the opportunity for 30 members of the Young Artists program to appear, with their names in the program. One baritone, Jonathan Bryan, was strong in the lead role of Beaumarchais. The only guest artist was Ukraine-born soprano Yelena Dyachek as Marie Antoinette. She is herself young and certainly an artist, but she is a graduate of Young Artist programs in Houston and San Francisco, and a Met Opera National Auditions winner.
Jay Lesenger, unfamiliar to me, but the director of more than 200 productions, directed this one, and he will direct when it moves to Chateau Versailles Spectacles, co-producer with Glimmerglass. Joseph Colaneri provided his usual strong support from the pit.
Production photos copyright Karli Cadel and Connor Lange.
Joseph Colaneri, Conductor
Jay Lesenger, Director
James Noone, Set Designer
Nancy Leary, Costume Designer
Robert Wierzel, Lighting Designer
Eric Sean Fogel, Choreographer
Samantha M. Wooten, Hair & Makeup Designer
Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles