written by DAINA BETH SOLOMON
Two centuries after the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette’s ghost still mopes in despair around the Palace of Versailles. Bitter and depressed, the queen is consumed with the memory of her murder at the guillotine. She opens “Ghosts of Versailles” at L.A. Opera with a lethargic aria, the lights around her blonde curls making her head appear to float without its body.
In the three-hour opera to follow, Marie Antoinette, now called Antonia, time-travels to the revolution, coming to grips with her past.
But “Ghosts of Versailles,” which I saw in dress rehearsal and plays through March 1, is a modern piece, first performed in 1991. (L.A. Opera is giving the rarely performed work its West Coast debut.) Composer John Corigliano and librettist William M. Hoffman infused the work with playful twists on conventional opera. Eerie, dissonant chords rub up against elegant arias. An opera-within-an-opera revives characters from “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” A woman in a horned helmet marches onstage to insist: “This is not an opera. Wagner is an opera!”
But opera it is. And like many operas, “Ghosts” has grand ambitions to stich together a dizzying array of plot lines – complete with a giant pink elephant and raging French mob – and plug in themes of love and loss, regret and acceptance.
For any of that to succeed, we have to care about our main character. But Marie Antoinette, performed by the regal Maria Racette, is a textbook figure removed from today’s uprisings in Ferguson and Mexico and around the world. She has little new to say. And her quest to accept fate is one that other artists have explored in much more compelling fashion.
Antonia’s bleak opening aria gives way to a cheerier setting as we meet sprightly Christopher Maltman in the role of Beaumarchais. He is also a prominent historical ghost: the writer who gave life to Figaro, one of opera’s most famous characters, in “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” To cheer up Antonia he stages a comedic opera starring the comedic Figaro. He also vows to write Marie Antoinette’s salvation into the opera, promising to create “history as it was meant to be.”
And so Ghosts dips into the gleeful end of its emotional seesaw. Much of the first act is opera buffa, particularly the opera-within-an-opera. This interior production delivers some of the most memorable scenes of the entire production, which is sung in English.
Figaro, performed by Lucas Meachem, springs to life in a patter song about his skills and escapades, a la Gilbert and Sullivan. As the song slows into contemplation, an aerial dancer floats into the air, swimming through a night sky studded with the stars of the Zodiac.
Figaro’s enemy, Beggearss (Robert Brubaker), swears he is a worm who will rise! He even rolls on the floor to prove his evil intentions as the string section plays stretchy, slimy chord progressions. Pictures of real worms projected onto the backdrop help make this one hilarious showstopper.
And Rosina (Guanqun Yu), the heroine from “The Barber of Seville,” sings a beautiful duet with an alluring young page, played by a woman (Renée Rapier). Two female voices are rarely heard in a lovers’ duet, and their soprano tones fuse into enchanting overtones.
Broadway star Patti Lupone rides onto stage atop a pink elephant as the Turkish Samira, ululating her voice in a parody of Middle Eastern music. Svelte young men in sequined red Speedos dance at her feet in the eight-minute spectacle. It’s all for show, nothing for plot. Here’s where the Wagnerite takes the stage in her horned helmet — only to get a pie slammed into her face.
Then we are dumped back into Antonia’s sorrowful afterlife – the muted slate tones of Versailles with its statues and candelabras of a lost era. The queen likes the mini opera, but is still waiting for her fate to change. So Beaumarchais sends Figaro to witness Marie Antoinette’s trial. And Antonia, the ghost, steps into her place in history.
As she faces a mob of revolutionaries, we finally understand why the revolution has haunted her for so long. This mob is terrifying. They jeer at their queen. They hoist sticks topped with decapitated heads that still ooze blood. They are the vilest creatures to have walked off the pages of “A Tale of Two Cities.”
So it’s a surprise when – spoiler alert — Marie Antoinette turns down Figaro’s offer to rescue her from jail. Having revisited the past, she realizes history “was as it should have been.” The opera ends with the clink of the guillotine set against movie-esque swells in the robust orchestra conducted by James Conlon.
Aaron Copeland once told Corigliano not to write operas. They would just suck up time that could be better spent writing shorter, simpler symphonies, Copeland advised. When Corigliano and Hoffman did accept the New York Metropolitan Opera’s commission to write “Ghosts” in 1980, the piece took an extra seven years to complete. Their ambition should be applauded, especially in an age when opera companies are fighting to straddle the line between tradition and innovation. “Ghosts” combines the two in a lively, entertaining production sure to draw crowds. But as I left, I hummed “The Barber of Seville” rather than “Ghosts,” wishing for something meaningful to hold on to.
L.A. Opera will perform Ghosts of Versailles Feb. 18, 21 and 26 and March 1. Tickets are available at www.laopera.org.
[featured photo by BEN GIBBS & all photos courtesy of the LA Opera]