Cher Public

“Ghosts” of honor

Ghosts_DVD_CoverJohn Corigliano‘s first and second symphonies won the Grawemeyer and the Pulitzer, respectively; the premiere of his Third Symphony wasn’t even reviewed by the Times. His score for The Red Violin won an Oscar™; his score for Edge of Darkness ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there an American composer at once more decorated and dismissed?

Ghosts of Versailles is another case in point. It’s difficult to imagine an organization committing more resources to a commission than this luxuriously cast, lavishly produced performance, but the Met’s latest revival got the axe in favor of the now-infamous Leonard Slatkin Traviata, and the piece has never been released on CD (it did enjoy a short release on VHS and, heh, laserdisc) or DVD until now. 

Therefore, please allow me to join Parterre’s chorus of finallys and what took ya so longs in reviewing each new release from the Met’s James Levine anniversary boxes. It’s easy to see now why the revival might have been scuttled, given the production’s spectacular demands, and the piece has some problems of its own, but I’m delighted to have finally seen and heard the thing.

So, speaking of “problems,” let’s talk about the libretto. As the title suggests, the William Hoffman‘s story takes us to the haunted Palace of Versailles, where the victims of the Reign of Terror spend their afterlives in a limbo of grotesque denial and spooky 12-tone music. Only the Queen (Teresa Stratas) seems upset, unable to forget the suffering that led to her present condition.

The ghost of Beaumarchais (Håkan Hagegård) attempts to cheer her up by putting on an opera (I’m not sure why they say “opera,” since weren’t his plays originally staged as plays, which were only later adapted into operas? Maybe they mean it in some sense of “opera comique” that I don’t know? Maybe I’m worrying too much about this? Somebody fill me in), promising that he can bring her back to life through the magic of his art.

The opera he puts on is an adaptation (of sorts) of a real play, La Mère coupable, the last and by far the darkest of Beaumarchais’ three Figaro plays. Its premise: the Almavivas have moved to the Paris of the Revolution, and in the twenty years since the events of The Marriage of Figaro, that play’s worst-case scenarios have come to pass.

Not only has Count Almaviva (Peter Kazaras) had a daughter (Florestine, sung by Tracy Dahl) out of wedlock, but the Countess Rosina and Cherubino have too (Léon, sung by Neil Rosenshein); Cherubino (Stella Zambalis), out of remorse, took a suicide mission, sending a love letter back to her (written in his own dying blood!), which the Countess (Renée Fleming) has hidden away. In the present, Léon and Florestine—now fully grown—have fallen in love, but their happiness is threatened by Almaviva’s treacherous friend Bégearss (Graham Clark), who knows the Countess’s secret and seeks Florestine’s hand for himself.

There are a lot of truly operatic moments in this play. The lovers are filled with horror to learn that Florestine is Almaviva’s daughter, mistakenly finding themselves to be brother and sister; the Countess is forced by Bégearss to burn her last letter from the dead Cherubino—but none of these moments end up in the opera.

Instead, these plot points are breezed past to get to the play’s least interesting macguffin, the Countess’s jewels—the prop is, in fact, Marie Antoinette’s own necklace, borrowed by Beaumarchais—so that Figaro can use them to buy the Queen’s passage to America, thereby allowing her to enter an alternate history within the opera in which she lives happily ever after. (Have I lost you? Actually, I think I’m a little lost myself.)

Replacing the Beaumarchais elements are new setpieces like a Mozartian-Orientalism-spoofing extravaganza at the Turkish embassy and a flashback to the fleeting romance between Rosina and Cherubino, both inserted with little justification beyond the obvious enjoyment of the composer. (For some reason, the Italian names of the characters who appeared in famous operas have been preserved in Ghosts, while all the new characters have their names spelled in French.)

The plot that remains is larded with clichés borrowed not so much from the comedies of Beaumarchais as from those of Bing and Bob. To intercept the jewels, changing hands at the Turkish embassy, Figaro disguises himself as a veiled dancing girl; when the Almavivas find themselves imprisoned by the Revolution, they pull the old “Guards, this prisoner is sick!” routine (that’s not an exact quotation); the foiled Bégearss actually cries out (and this is an exact quotation), “You fools, they’re getting away!”

Somewhere along the line, however, Figaro has strayed from the script, pocketing the jewels in order to smuggle the Almavivas out of the country, and so Beaumarchais has broken the fourth wall and entered the play to get them back and free the Queen. But Marie Antoinette refuses his offer—she has fallen in love with him, and instead remains behind to be re-executed, so that the two of them can spend eternity in the paradise that is their love.

Now. There are some real ideas here. The notion that drama can be a kind of magic might seem like a treacly cliché, but it’s become a cliché because there’s a seed of emotional truth to it; when Figaro takes on a life of his own, independent of his creators—well, hasn’t he? Numerous opera composers, not just Mozart and Rossini, have written Figaro operas; this isn’t even the first opera to treat La Mère coupable (Note to record industry tycoons: please release a CD of Milhaud’s setting. Thank you). We feel as if we know him. Massenet even set a spinoff play to music: Chérubin, a sort of Beaumarchais fanfic.

But the execution is bungled. The opera isn’t quite conscious enough to pull off self-conscious. There’s a particularly cringeworthy moment at the end of the Turkish scene, when the opera descends into screwball chaos and a Valkyrie storms onstage to complain that “this [Ghosts? or the opera within the opera?] is not opera; Wagner is opera!” Why is she there? What is she doing, other than settling some weird score on the part of the librettist and composer? Think of the similar moment in Nixon in China, where Pat Nixon and Henry Kissinger suddenly become characters in the Act 2 opera within the opera and all hell breaks loose—that was so mystifying! This, by contrast, comes so cheap.

Clearly what this opera needs is Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Sadly, dear Hugo is no longer with us, but how much better would this opera have been with a librettist who can handle magic and metatheater and metaphysics and toy successfully conventions of 18th-century comedy, all at once, coherently and poetically?

Ah, well. What the libretto does well is supply the excuses for some thrilling stage pictures—the undead courtiers, Beaumarchais’ trip through the fourth wall, and of course that Turkish insanity—and provide pleasing set pieces at the appropriate intervals (the piece never seems to drag).

Corigliano, for his part, is an ace at composing those set pieces. His fake Rossini and imitation Mozart make for genuine pleasure, and in the many sequences where he reaches for an expressive quality that’s entirely his own, he grasps it assuredly; Levine’s orchestra provides every bit of the requisite sweetness and terror.

I mentioned, earlier, the lavish production values here, and I weren’t kiddin’. This thing is huge, but its outrageous bigness is always in service of the piece—kudos to director Colin Graham. And the cast! Hagegård is adorable as ever, Clark achieves Maximum Ham as the villain, with an impressive vocal performance to boot, Renee sings and acts sweetly and unaffectedly and Marilyn Horne stops the show dead with her turn as Samira, the Turkish singer.

But this is Teresa Stratas’s show. She tears her voices to shreds, screaming and moaning and wailing as the hysterical Marie Antoinette, then goes for the pp high note and it’s there. She chews the scenery up and spits it out in bloody chunks; the face she makes at her trial scene, accused of incest by the kangaroo court, is iconic. Can we clone her or something? Please?

Now I worry that I’ve come down too hard on this piece. In recent centuries, we’ve got the idea into our heads that every opera has to be some kind of Definitive Statement, a dangerous notion that probably had some influence on the enormous length of time it took Corigliano to finish the thing, and with the defects of the formally overwrought product of those labors. The level upon which this opera succeeds most fully is as a gripping entertainment—and yes, on balance, it is a success. It’s easy to see why, after the difficult gestation and sparse performance history of this piece, he has yet compose another.

But I certainly wish he would try.

  • Signor Bruschino

    Can I nominate Teresa Stratas as new artistic director of the MET- what that woman has on is something that every artist needs just an ounce of to get better. I genuinely feel fortunate to have seen one of her ‘Marie Antoinettes’ live… It was a long evening but she held that show together

  • operaman50

    I’ve always thought GHOSTS was PARSIFAL or TRISTAN compared to the contemporary crap we’ve had forced on us in recent decades. Complicated plot? Who cares? Better than NO PLOT AT ALL …. or characters we could care less about. So glad this is finally being released. Along with the TRITTICO, DON CARLO, BARTERED BRIDE and ROSENKAVALIER…. my “most treasured” of the new set. Also, the new ARIADNE is quite something ….. keep digging in those vaults!

    • operaman50

      Also … the ARIADNE is in beautiful wide-screen. ‘Wonder if the WOZZECK will be too.

  • papopera

    The plot is a mess, never understood what it was all about. As to the music, its ersatz Mozart and ersatz Rossini, seems to work well enough.

  • I believe Opera Theatre of St. Louis is working on (has already done?) a “smaller” version of the opera so regional companies can perform it.

    • To my knowledge, they did a season or 2 ago. it is a “chanber” version with the plot tighten and the orchestra forces greatly reduced.

      Maria Kanyova sang Marie Antoinette.

      • ianw2

        Yes, Corigliano finally did a chamber version.

        Hearsay, but I believe several houses expressed interest in Ghosts, if he prepared a version more amenable to their budgets but he refused (that may be too strong a word, but nonetheless he wasn’t interested). It was probably only when he realised the piece was going to fade away that he finally conceded it would have more life with a smaller version. I gather he ended up finding the challenge of reduction surprisingly enjoyable, and revisiting one of his bigger triumphs.

        • As it is, the opera has been subjected to major cuts from the beginning. When we did it at IU, the whole scene where Zamira appears was cut, even after Martina Arroyo asked to be cast as Zamira.

          I will have to say that Corigliano and his partner were completely charming and a joy to work with. I have a feeling that since it was the prosperous 90’s he wanted to see if he could cash in on the piece without much cuts; after the economy took a hit, he needed to make the opera more marketable.

        • CruzSF

          Don’t leave us hanging! What did you assign Martina to sing instead?

        • ianw2

          Yes, everyone seems to be very fond of them. I am solely guessing here but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark helped him realise the advantages of the smaller version considering the moderately-sized ‘Little Women’ is pretty much his annual salary.

    • The chamber version was staged at the Wexford Festival last year in a co-production with the Vancouver Opera. I believe the VCO will be presenting it in 2011-2012. It seemed to have met with some success in the Irish venue.

  • LittleMasterMiles

    This is only the most high-profile in a long line of recent operas in which interesting, effective music is applied to a fatally weak libretto. It joins Doctor Atomic, The Great Gatsby (the original version especially), The First Emperor, and any number of NYCO productions. These are created by composers who couldn’t find a good librettist, or didn’t know that they needed one.

    Slightly rarer is the reverse: an opera with a good libretto and ineptly written vocal lines: An American Tragedy comes to mind, but we’ll soon enough experience another, Thomas Adés’ misbegotten Tempest. These are written by composers who think every tenor is Bacchus and every soprano is the Queen of the Night.

    Then there are the “literary” operas that set a beloved book to perfectly innocuous music, with a result that can best be descibed as “harmless,” Little Women being the paradigm. I’ll give a pass to The Little Prince, which has moments of real charm and is in any case aimed at small children. These are created by opera-company administrators.

    • ianw2

      Ack no! I must sail (ha!) to the defence of ‘The Tempest’. I think one of the best things about it is that Ades and Oakes own their source material and make it their own- the bugbear which, when ignored, gives me the shits and leads to what you, correctly, refer to as ‘harmless’ operas (I prefer ‘Cliffs Notes Operas’ myself, but I stole it from someone else).

      I find ‘The Tempest’ an extraordinary work. The Prospero & Ariel vocal lines are terrifying, yet singers still sing them (let’s not forget how ‘impossible’ and ‘unmusical’ the Wagner or Strauss vocal parts were once considered).

      They’re not impossible but sure as hell need a lot of preparation and support. I can’t wait to see where Ades goes with opera now- Tempest was his first ‘full size’ opera, second total. The vocal lines in ‘Nixon in China’ are very stressful, but as Adams grew accustomed to the voice it resulted in the lines of ‘El Nino’ and ‘Dr Atomic’ (a work I share your disappointment in- desperately, desperately wanted to love it but hated it). I believe that Ades has another ROH commission sometime around 2013, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with and whether his vocal writing changes.

    • MontyNostry

      No-one here in the UK seems to dare to criticise Thomas Adès. I didn’t see The Tempest, but did listen to it on the radio and it seemed quite pretty, but dramatically somewhat inert — all the music seemed to be at the same speed. (No doubt someone more diligent like armerjaquino will pick me up on this — I bet he bothered to go and see it.) Still, I am the one person who didn’t seem to love Jonathan Dove’s Pinocchio, which was at least 20 minutes too long, offered a procession of tableaux rather than a compelling dramatic structure (yes, you can probably say the same about ‘Boris’, I guess … but what tableaux!) and, to coin a phrase from a recent thread on here, engaged in quite a bit of note-spinning. The text was pretty punchy, though.

      • ianw2

        I find Dove a bit John Adams Lite, but ‘Flight’ deserves more performances that it gets- there are very few genuinely funny contemporary operas around.

        I suppose that the dramatics of The Tempest could seem a little slow outside the house. Perhaps I’m revealing my composition geek, but the construction of the score, and the way he manipulates his material and all those crunchy clusters giving way to the glorious Act III A major quintet! And it has such a beautiful ending. I love it, obviously, but I also think Ades, if he chooses the opera direction, has even better work in him to come. How many composers nail their first full size opera?

        • Henry Holland

          How many composers nail their first full size opera?

          Debussy
          Dukas
          Schreker with Der Ferne Klang (his first opera was only ever done with piano)
          Britten with Peter Grimes (Paul Bunyan is a musical/operetta)

        • ianw2

          Dukas?! When was the last time a Dukas opera was performed? I’m pretty sure now someone will pull up some German production last month, but Dukas is not even fringe repertory.

          But my point remains. I’d wager that if you tallied up the list of composers who flopped or scraped a pass on their first opera, it would be several times longer.

        • Henry Holland

          Dukas?! When was the last time a Dukas opera was performed?

          What does that have to do with anything?

          I’ll add:

          Korngold (Der Ring des Polykrates, written when he was 17)
          Birtwistle (Punch and Judy)
          Saariaho (L’amour de Loin)

          It’s being done in Barcelona at the Liceu next year, as a matter of fact and it gets a production about once a year. It’s a fabulous opera, the production I saw in Nottingham by Opera North years ago was one of my favorite nights at the opera.

          Your point is obvious, I was just providing some examples to counter it.

        • m. croche

          It seems Henry Holland has a higher opinion of Rodrigue et Chimene than I do.

          I think “Wozzeck” would probably be a better example…

        • Henry Holland

          It seems Henry Holland has a higher opinion of Rodrigue et Chimene than I do

          What on earth are you talking about?

          Yes, Wozzeck, a great example.

        • m. croche

          Rodrigue et Chimene was Debussy’s first (nearly) completed opera, libretto by Catulle Mendes. The orchestration was only sketched out -- a performing version was orchestrated by Edison Denisov. There is a recording. After laboring mightily over R et Ch., Debussy dropped it and took up with Melisande.

  • Will

    I agree that the MET did everything it could to produce a great spectacle with Ghosts, but for me that’s as far as it went. For the most part I thought the opera was window dressing, such as Figaro’s entrance aria which fell really flat where an obvious tribute to, or descendant from, Largo al factotem was obviously intended.

    Somewhere in the middle of the second act, I began to hear something I thought might be Corigliano’s real musical voice, and I preferred it to 90% of all the fake Mozart/Rossini that had come before.

  • Strephon

    ” Round and round the ghosts of beauty glide
    and haunt the places where their honour died”

    A.Pope

  • parpignol

    it’s been twenty years since I saw this, and I have not seen the new DVD, but I remember Ghosts as being an uneven but on the whole compelling opera, both musically and dramatically; I thought the book and the libretto played rather skillfully with the eighteenth-century materials (musical, literary, historical), that the work used self-conscious post-modernism, including pastiche, in ways that made one think and take note, that there was even some historical interest in the way it participated in the bicentennial discussion surrounding the French Revolution (Ghosts, like Andrea Chenier, staked out its anti-revolutionary position); the allusions to the theatrical world of Marie Antoinette’s petit hameau at Versailles were nicely done (you can now see the restored theater where such entertainments were staged for the queen, with or without Beaumarchais); and the confusing references to the queen’s jewelry underline what was in fact huge contemporary confusion surrounding the scandal of the queen’s necklace in the 1780s; and I remember some of Corigliano’s musical settings, with the libretto, as both striking and moving: the queen’s opening and concluding monologues (Stratas, of course, was amazing), the garden quartet (included on the Met’s recent 125th anniversary CD, and featuring both Fleming and Stratas), and the ensemble tribute to the rococo god of love sung from the prisons of the Terror; the Turkish pastiche was spectacular, and, though admittedly I can’t remember in great detail after so many years, I do look forward to hearing the score and seeing the performance again someday; I was disappointed when last year’s planned revival was axed for economic reasons. . .

  • CruzSF

    Now here’s one I can’t wait to see/hear. I do hope they split up the DVDs at some future point, to make the costs more amenable…

    The review makes the opera sound like a glorious mess — it sounds overly complicated — which I don’t mind. I appreciate people trying to add new works to the world. And that cast!

    With the chamber version now making the rounds of smaller companies, maybe we’ll soon be able to compare the overly ambitious original with the tighter, improved revision.

    Again, I can’t wait.

  • Huh. I went youtube hunting for some clips of this since I hadn’t heard a single note of this and had always been curious.

    This monologue by Marie (Stratas) seems to have everything that Dan was referencing: the shrieking/moaning, the high pp note(s), a pretty respectable high D(I think?), and still that marvelous timbre and full middle voice.

    • CruzSF

      Riveting. Stunning. Stratas masterly meets the challenges of Corigliano’s sometimes cruel writing. Strong acting and virtuosic singing need not be strangers. Thanks for the posting, alex.

      • CruzSF

        Pardon, I meant “masterfully.” I’m just struck dumb by the clip from “Ghosts of V.”

    • PirateJenny

      Holy F-word. I had that on in the background while doing my work -- I had to stop working and stare, riveted, at my laptop until that clip was done. I actually have tears in my eyes. You know, I saw this years ago on PBS, but with all the spectacle of the spectacle all I really remember was stuff like the Wagnerian coming in to sing THIS IS NOT AN OPERA.

      I have no idea how she could scream, and then seconds later caress a sweet pp… She is a hard act to follow. Not to mention her non-opera life, which involves helping clean and care for people in Calcutta and Romanian orphanages.

      The world -- not just opera -- needs more people like her.

      • Loge

        Of course she ended up with severe vocal cord damage which ended her career. I have heard second hand that she was unable to sing the aria as written and Corigliano had to re-write it for her. He was very excited to hear his aria as written at the European premiere in Hanover.

        • PirateJenny

          Ended up is one way of putting it -- however, if you do the math, she would have been 53 when Ghosts premiered. Of course, we can all think of examples of the great so-and-so who was singing as beautifully as ever at the age of 82 and could teach these young whippersnappers a thing or two about technique… but honestly, they are few and far between. I don’t know what or when was Teresa’s last performance, but given that she was still performing that astonishingly, fearlessly, vulnerably, and committedly at 53 puts her in my pantheon of heroes.

    • Earl Koenig

      Without question, the most moving part of this whole opera to me, which I find fascinatingly multi-dimensional (yes, at times to the point of confusion). I remember seeing this on VHS and the sheer excitement I had for Corigliano’s efforts. Nice to know that feeling hasn’t faded! Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful clip.

  • Buster

    Thanks for your interesting review. I saw the Chicago cast, and it took me several performances to appreciate the work. The main reason I kept going back (always plenty of return tickets) was Sylvia McNair, who sang the Renée Fleming part. The other singer I ended up loving in it, was Sheri Greenawald as Marie Antoinette. Hakan Hagegard unfortunately had gained a few pounds since the Magic Flute film.

    • Nerva Nelli

      “Hakan Hagegard unfortunately had gained a few pounds since the Magic Flute film.”

      Which OF COURSE rendered his performance worthless in the gimlet eyes of certain queens. How tiresome.

      The libretto is reactionary, the hairdressing class’s love of the ancien regime for its gowns and imposed order.

      The music has its moments, about 20 of them MAYBE, and several of the performances were wonderful, but otherwise I thought this was the worst piece of dreck to come along since City Opera mounted things like THE STUDENT FROM SALAMANCA.

      Little did one know that the oeuvre of Deborah Drattel and Adamo’s appalling LYSISTRATA and (shudder) THE WORST EMPEROR lay on the horizon…

      • Can we also bring in the point that Corigliano claimed to have been inspired by his identification with the executed French nobility, who, like the victims of the Holocaust, reminded him of his martyrdom at the hands of the Serialists at Manhattan School of Music?

        The official term on parterre for Ghosts of Versailles is “Technicolor Twaddle.”

        • ianw2

          Please, please tell me your first paragraph is artistic license.

        • To the best of my recollection, it went down like this. Corigliano was being introduced by NYCO’s Paul Kellogg at a gala. Kellogg in his introductory remarks apparently quoted these ideas directly from statements Corigliano made elsewhere. Corigliano then took the stage and made no effort to contract the parallels to the Terror and the Holocaust, and in fact expanded somewhat on his hard treatment as a tonal composer in the horrific days of the 1950s. It always struck me as the height of something or other that a classical musician who was the son of the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, an assistant to Leonard Bernstein, and a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment grants would harp on his struggle against discrimination.

        • M

          Esteemed La C, I was at that gala, too, and I don’t recall the argument being quite so personal. Corigliano’s always made the point that Ghosts was, in part, a fantasy of historical evolution, not revolution: of embracing the future without destroying the past, &c, &c--and while, obviously, no blood was shed in the modernist taste wars (certainly not his) I think it’s still possible, artist to artist, to feel deep sympathy for those composers who felt their entire catalogues utterly dismissed by the Darmstadt crowd. As a young man Corigliano knew both Barber and Copland, and he’s given interviews about how both men (Barber obviously after Antony and Cleopatra, but Copland and even Bernstein, too) felt, late in life, as if the ’60s vision of music made their entire musical lives worthless. Now, you may think that’s an emotion worth composing an opera about or you may not; but that’s the gala speech I remember, which is not quite the “Marie Antoinette, c’est moi!” story you’re telling here…

        • It was a long time ago, and La Cieca was in something of a mood at the time because the organizers of this gala so badly bungled arrangements for the artists who were to perform (she was along for wrangling and moral support) — there was no place for the singer to warm up, no dressing room, no green room, not even the offer of a drink of water, for several hours while the patrons ate and drank and Kellogg mostly just drank. So by the time whatever was heard was heard it may have been through a jaundiced ear.

          Plus La Cieca has never had much sympathy with the “poor persecuted tonalists” school: it’s not enough that these fellows’ work was performed widely, they received commissions from the most major orchestras and foundations, they grew wealthy working in their chosen field and writing precisely the music they wanted to write; no, besides that they have to claim victim status because of a slight case of butthurt due to exclusion from the Darmstadt reindeer games.

          “Yes, my opera is being performed at the Met, and I’m handsome and rich and I have an Academy Award, a house in the country, and a clever, adorable boyfriend twenty years my junior, but Milton Babbitt is over there in the corner with his friends, and they’re all laughing at me!”

        • M

          Touché.

        • Henry Holland

          no, besides that they have to claim victim status because of a slight case of butthurt due to exclusion from the Darmstadt reindeer games

          You know how in Bugs Bunny cartoons, whenever someone is madly in love, dozens of hearts fly from their chest? That’s me after reading our doyenne’s post of 12:03.

          What’s always left out of the butthurt is that *they were vindicated*! The 12-tone method/serialism didn’t end up replacing tonality, it’s a niche within the broader musical style.

  • On a related note, Michael Cristofer, Pulitzer Prize0winning playright (The Shadow Box), award winning director (Gia), and actor (Rubicon) is writing a libretto for an opera about Emile Griffiths, gay 1950s boxer. For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie version of Shadow Box, I highly recommend it.

    • CruzSF

      Sanford, is there news or rumor about possible composers for it?

    • Graefin Geschmutz

      I saw the Broadway production of ‘The Shadow Box’ that effectively won the play the Pulitzer, and I thought the piece was awful: sincere in the extreme but utterly trivial in its treatment of inherently fraught material. As dear Oscar once said, ‘all bad poets are sincere.’

  • WindyCityOperaman

    I have pre-ordered the Levine DVDs and CDs, and can’t wait to see them! The truth is I missed the majority of the original broacasts or telecasts (at chorus rehearsals, working or in school) and I didn’t own TV for three years -- that’s poverty!

    I also saw the Lyric’s Versailles and can’t remember a single thing about it. Getting old.