“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.