Say you had a time machine. What would you do? Next to, say, killing Hitler or stopping George Lucas from making the prequels, saving Marie Antoinette from the guillotine probably wouldn’t rate that high on your list.
John Corigliano’s opera The Ghosts of Versailles enlists us in that mission anyway, in a bold act of historical revisionism—-managing to make what wasn’t even one of the great tragedies of the French Revolution into one of the great tragedies of human history, if not historical revision—-she still (minor spoiler) bites it in the end, though sacrificing herself, Christ-like, for the good of humanity.
Granted, Ghosts of Versailles shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s written as a sort-of opera buffa, a comic opera in the Italian style of Rossini, whose Barber of Seville was the first part of what turns out to be a Figaro trilogy. You can be forgiven if you were unaware there was a third part after Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, since for 200 years, there wasn’t. Corigliano’s opera, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1980, wasn’t staged until 1991, coincidentally the same year Alexandra Ripley’s “sequel” to Gone with the Wind came out. Unlike Ripley, though, Corigliano actually does have some legit source material: The Guilty Mother by 18th-century French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, who also wrote the plays on which Seville and Figaro were based.
The opera was well-received when it debuted, but then it mostly disappeared—-a surprise, since it was the only opera written by one of the hottest contemporary composers at the time (Corigliano went on to write the score for The Red Violin and win a Pulitzer). Opera companies, it seems, were put off by the cost of the two orchestras and full chorus it called for. So Corigliano reluctantly whittled it down to a chamber version, replacing many of the strings with a synthesizer, to the horror of opera purists.
But a whittled version is better than none at all. That’s how Wolf Trap Opera, a small company that also serves as an apprentice program for up-and-coming singers and wouldn’t normally be a venue for a grand opera, got to put it on. And it doesn’t sound like the company cut corners (audience members will hardly notice the synth). As with their other productions, Wolf Trap’s singers have tremendous talent that belies their relative inexperience. Soprano Melinda Whittington, as Marie Antoinette, is the most forceful of the bunch but never sounds strained. Baritone Morgan Pearse and mezzo Sarah Larsen, as the couple Figaro and Susanna, are nicely balanced together and display good agility on their own. Mezzo Abigail Levis reprises her role of Cherubino from Wolf Trap Opera’s last production, Marriage of Figaro, with a bright voice though not as much material to work with.
Figaro’s Count Almaviva, played here competently by Frederick Ballentine, doesn’t have as large of a role either, as he’s not the main antagonist. That would be Bégearss, played by Robert Watson, who of the two tenors appears to have the most fun doing the operatic equivalent of mustache twirling. As the story starts where Figaro left off, the count’s the good guy again; we should forget the whole would-be rapist thing from the last installment. Instead it’s Bégarss who’s trying to break up a happy couple, this time the count and countess’ respective illegitimate children. Wouldn’t that make them step-siblings? OK, gross, but apparently that’s a hot new literary trope.
Corigliano and librettist William Hoffman take this already convoluted plot and convolute it further by making it an opera-within-an-opera, one based loosely on the play. They make real-life playwright Beaumarchais a character, who stages it for the ghost of Marie Antoinette and the other dead nobles haunting post-Revolution Versailles. At some point, Beaumarchais decides his opera can rewrite history and undo all that liberté and egalité nonsense so poor Marie can get her head back. And thus, in the second half, the opera careens from farce to tragedy, much as Marx predicted, but in reverse.
If you can follow this and have a high tolerance for reactionary sentiment, it’s a great show, though strangely, the music is the least compelling part of the package. Corigliano’s score is really little more than a medley, with bits of Italian Romantic, French Impressionist and other familiar styles thrown together haphazardly, along with phrases lifted directly from Rossini and Mozart. Likewise, the comedy derives from a succession of non-sequitur references to other operas: there’s the seven-veil dance from Salome, there’s Brünnhilde from Wagner’s Ring cycle. It’s Family Guy humor, and like Family Guy, it can grow tiresome.
But it’s more sweet-natured than that, so if it’s not quite opera buffa, it’s not quite modern either. Maybe it’s because I saw another musical-within-a-musical, The Producers, recently, but Ghosts of Versailles reminds me more of Mel Brooks than Mozart or Rossini: all the winking references, the schmaltz, the feel-good homage to the genre masquerading as something edgier. Corigliano’s opera doesn’t do anything new, but it’ll please opera fans who get the references and win over non-opera fans with a well-worn but proven formula.
The Ghosts of Versailles continues Wednesday, July 15 and Saturday, July 18 at 7:30 pm at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna. $32 – $88.