New productions of contemporary American operas are important events. Perhaps no such work has been given a new look with the dedication of musical and visual resources as the Los Angeles Opera’s new mounting of John Corigliano’s 1991 opera, “The Ghosts of Versailles”.
The production was stunning. It was created by the team responsible for Broadway’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” that garnered Tony awards for director Darko Tresnjak and costume designer Linda Cho and a Tony nomination for Alexander Dodge.
[Below: Alexander Dodge’s set designs for “The Ghosts of Versailles”; edited image, based on a drawing, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
It is significant that such Broadway royalty would be enlisted to create a spectacle for the Los Angeles Opera, whose home, the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is located only a few miles from Hollywood, a creative center known for spectacle. The production was unabashedly spectacular. Its large cast included 61 principal characters, 28 choristers, 11 dancers as well as aerial acrobats.
[Below: all of the characters of “The Ghosts of Versailles” and aerial acrobats join Broadway star Patti LuPone in a Turkish fantasy at the first act finale in a setting inspired by the Queen’s Theater on Marie Antoinette’s Estate at Versailles; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The Story Lines
The production team’s assignment was, in effect, to realize several different planes of existence that are present in the opera.
This is an especially complex task, because, unlike most dramas that have surreal elements – say, the Bard’s Hamlet where a “real world” exists and Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears in it from another existence – none of the planes of existence is really “real”. Yet the opera deals with real world events – the advanced stages of the French Revolution
I believe that the more one sorts through the planes of existence – of surreal existence – the more one finds to admire and enjoy in the opera.
By my count there are four ghost worlds and the separate world of Beaumarchais’ imagination that interacts with the ghost worlds.
The Ghost World of Versailles
The Versailles ghosts are Marie Antoinette (American dramatic soprano Patricia Racette) and her husband Louis XVI (Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson) and their royal entourage, executed by guillotine during the French Revolution.
[Below: Patricia Racette as the ghost of Marie Antoinette; edited image of a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Linda Cho has costumed them in black. They live in a kind of purgatory in which there also exists their other selves (their headless bodies dressed in white and continuously mimicking the gestures of the character they represent).
The Ghost World of Beaumarchais
Into that purgatory arrives the French dramatist Beaumarchais (English baritone Christopher Maltman), author of the trio of “Figaro” dramas – “The Barber of Seville”, “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Guilty Mother”.
Unlike the decapitated ghosts, all of whom died at the guillotine, Beaumarchais is elegantly costumed as an ancien regime nobleman, The historical Beaumarchais lived for decades after the revolution (the last few in America).
Although historically a survivor, by the time of this opera, Beaumarchais is also a ghost. (At one point, when an angry exchange between King Louis and Beaumarchais leads to a duel, Marie Antoinette has to remind them that everyone present is dead.)
Obviously a ghost from a different plane, Beaumarchais is a conjurer, apparently able to change history, giving Marie Antoinette the choice to survive the Revolution if she would come to America with him.
Beaumarchais’ Imaginary World
The operatic Beaumarchais, like his real counterpart, has created a world of characters who seem real – Figaro, Count and Countess Almaviva, Cherubino, Susanna – because they appear not only in Beaumarchais’ French plays, but in the popular Figaro operas by Rossini and Mozart.
Beaumarchais continues the Figaro stories into their “Guilty Mother” sequel, that centers on a love affair between two bastard children, one each of the Count and Countess Almaviva. The further adventures of Figaro and friends succeed in cheering up the despondent Marie Antoinette and provides much of the forward motion of the opera.
[Below: Beaumarchais (Christopher Maltman, left) reveals the story of an illicit child born of an affair between Rosina, the Countess Almativa (Guanqun Yu, center) and Cherubino (Renee Rapier, right); edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The Ghost World of Marie Antoinette’s Queen’s Theater
There are two other ghost worlds that the opera visits that one consider as directly opposed to each other. One is the surreal world of the Théâtre de la Reine – the Queen’s Theater that Marie Antoinette created at the Palace of Versailles (an obvious inspiration for Alexander Dodge’s sets that encompass the opera).
[Below: the Théâtre de la Reine, Queen Marie Antoinette’s theater at the Palace of Versailles, edited image of a photograph, from frenchtravelboutique.com.]
The surreal theatricality of Marie Antoinette’s pre-Revolutionary world, is represented in the opera by the actress Samira (Patti LuPone) riding in on the giant pink elephant. In the opera, this scene effectively represents all the excesses of the ancien régime.
[Below: Samira (Patti LuPone, atop elephant) has arrived; edited image, based on a Ben Gibbs photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In contrast to the Turkish fantasy of the Théâtre de la Reine is the surreal world of Revolutionary “justice” in which the mobs demand that, on pain of death, she defend herself against the charge of incest with the seven year old heir to the throne.
Her famous and dignified reply to the charge is translated verbatim into the opera.
[Below: the revolutionary tribunal accuses Marie Antoinette (Patricia Racette, right) of crimes against France, which includes the charge of incest with her own son); edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Even though both the scene of Samira on the elephant in a Turkish fantasy and the rough justice of the Paris mob are presented in surreal contexts, both have roots in historical fact. I would argue that the two scenes represent first, the excesses of the French royal family in a potential revolutionary period, and the excesses of the ensuing revolution.
Pointedly, Beaumarchais’ greatest creation, Figaro, participates in the Turkish fantasy and observes Marie Antoinette’s trial. At opera’s end, the Queen accepts her fate and refuses Beaumarchais’ offer to change history.
Because so much of the opera’s plot advances the storyline of the characters in “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” and introduces new characters described below, that the presentation of “Ghosts of Versailles” and the Rossini and Mozart works by the Los Angeles Opera as a “Figaro Trilogy” makes great sense. All three operas will be presented by the Los Angeles Opera in February and March of 2015 .
The idea of a “Figaro Trilogy” centers deserved attention on the role of Beaumarchais in the French Revolution (that many historians argue he contributed to with his anti-aristocratic Figaro plays) and the American Revolution (for which Beaumarchais procured arms for the American side).
I would argue that the opera is as much a discussion of the French Revolution as it is of Figaro and could imagine a “French Revolutionary Trilogy” of, say, Corigliano’s “Ghosts”, Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” and Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (but that should be the subject of another essay.)
Notes on the Musical Performance
The musical performance was of international significance as well. A labor of love of Los Angeles Opera’s music director James Conlon, who conducted the Los Angeles Opera orchestra with obvious deep respect for a complex (but never inaccessible) musical work.
The principal singers were cast with great care, and the results were impressive.
Patricia Racette’s Marie Antoinette and Christopher Maltman’s Beaumarchais
Leading the cast was Patricia Racette in a searing portrait of Marie Antoinette, her dramatic voice superbly controlled, affecting in ther opening aria Once there was a golden bird. Equally impressive was the person in the opera whom she obviously loved, the dramatist Beaumarchais, sung by English baritone Christopher Maltman.
[Below: the ghost of Marie Antoinette (Patricia Racette, left) has become reconciled to her fate and declines the offer of Beaumarchais (Christopher Maltman, right) to change the course of history; edited image, based on a Chris Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
(She had a pricklier relationship with her husband, King Louis XVI, sung by Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson, who was in excellent voice).
The “Figaro” Play Characters
Mozart’s Figaro and Almaviva are each centered in a lower range than Rossini. Corigliano, like Rossini, assigns the roles respectively to a baritone and tenor.
Leading the characters of Beaumarchais’ Figaro plays was Figaro himself, sung with distinction by North Carolina baritone Lucas Meachem. William M. Hoffman’s libretto provides Figaro with the kind of patter song at which Meachem is so adept.
[Below: the townsfolk bring a host of complaints to and about Figaro (Lucas Meachem, seated); edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Corigliano’s Figaro has all the comic opportunities of Rossini’s, bolstered with an outrageously slapstick appearance as a harem dancing girl in the Turkish scene.
But, because Figaro himself is confronted with the sobering issue of the Revolution’s unceasing violence, is ultimately repulsed by the injustice shown Marie Antoinette, Meachem displayed both his comic and dramatic skills – both familiar to those who follow his career. [See “Hey, Figaro!”: A Conversation with Baritone Lucas Meachem.]
Among the most memorable of the “Figaro characters” was American tenor Robert Brubaker, whose blockbuster comic turns as the villain Begearss, included anthems to worms and rats. Having previously praised him in the role of Wozzeck’s despicable Captain [see “Wozzeck” for the Connoisseur: Richard Paul Fink Stars in Impressive Santa Fe Opera Revival – August 3, 2011], he is clearly a master of character roles, here paired with another fine character tenor, Joel Sorensen, in the role of Begearss’ put-upon servant Wilhelm.
[Below: Robert Brubaker as the villain Begearss; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Guanqun Yu and Joshua Guerrero were, respectively, Rosina, Countess Almaviva and her husband the Count. Yu, who is also cast as the Countess in the later performances of “Marriage of Figaro”, displayed a pleasing voice centered with a soft, beautiful vibrato. Guerrero, a native Angeleno, taking on the most important role of his career to date, also made a strong impression.
Other noteworthy performances were those of lyric tenor Brenton Ryan as Leon, the love-child of Cherubino and Countess Almaviva, and Stacey Tappan as Florestine, love-child of Count Almaviva and an unnamed high-born South American.
[Below: Brenton Ryan (left) as Leon and Stacey Tappan (right) as Florestine; edited image, based on a Ben Gibbs photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer was Susanna, tenor Scott Scully was the Marquis, Philip Cokorinos was Pasha Suleyman, Victoria Livengood was a Woman in a large white hat and Renee Rapier was Cherubino.
Various groups of artists included Summer Hassan, Lacey Jo Benter, Frederick Ballentine, Patrick Blackwell, So Young Park, Vanessa Becerra, Peabody Southwell, Museop Kim, Lisa Eden, Katherine Giaquinto, Melissa Treinkman, Nicholas Brownlee, Lori Ann Fuller, Michele Hemmings and Gabriel Vamvulescu.
The appearance of Patti LuPone in the Turkish scene, even though she is on stage for less than ten minutes, should create its own legends in this show biz capital.
Although this is John Corigliano’s only opera, his influence on American composers is profound. Creating a new production of this giant work is a major accomplishment for the Los Angeles Opera. The music is always accessible, yet is brilliantly composed.
Although there is much to interest a casual opera-goer, there are several stories intertwined, and how one relates to the other may not be obvious when seen the first time. Therefore, the more you prepare for the opera, before attending a performance of the opera, the more likely it will fully engage you. I recommend the interviews on the Los Angeles Opera website and arriving early so as to hear Conductor James Conlon’s pre-performance talk.
I recommend the Los Angeles Opera production, with its superb cast, with the suggestion that a newcomer to the opera invest the time to learn about the opera’s ghost worlds, Beaumarchais and the Figaro stories.