Cher Public

Drop dead diva

My first experience with John Corigliano’s music was in high school with the ear and mind blowing score he wrote for Ken Russell’s film Altered States. It was nominated for an Academy Award that year alongside John Williams’ orchestral battalions for The Empire Strikes Back, the gentle humanity John Morris brought to The Elephant Man and Phillipe Sarde’s high romance for Tess. All were estimable examples in their own genres, and yet the brass ring that year went to Michael Gore’s disco gyrations for Fame. Sometimes, considering the company, the greater honor is to stand next to those passed over.  

At the time, in my operatic infancy, I remember scoffing at the announcement in Opera News that Corigliano, along with librettist William H. Hoffman, had been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and James Levine for the first world premiere in the house since 1967. The premiere was scheduled in honor of the Centennial season for 1983, but that season passed, followed by many others, until the The Ghosts of Versailles finally debuted in 1991. Corigliano labeled it “grand opera buffa” and the Met ran with the grand part, mounting an all-star and physically cavernous production.

A smashing success at its first performances, it was televised and then revived in 1995, with Chicago Lyric presenting it the following year. But a work with over 40 singing roles and a double orchestra can’t travel very far and in 2008 the composer employed the skills of another to reduce the scope for smaller venues. This enabled both its European premiere and a very well regarded production at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The Met had scheduled another revival for 2010 that came of naught due to budgetary constraints.

The plot concerns the afterlife of the French court of Louis XVI and the playwright Beaumarchais who utilizes his Figaro characters to fashion a divertisment for Marie Antoinette. She’s dead, you know, but the poor dear is still suffering major post-traumatic stress syndrome from the trial and subsequent beheading. It’s a charming conceit that takes on an even larger life of its own when Beaumarchais decides that he’ll rewrite history to stop the revolution and save his beloved queen, who’s referred to as Antonia in the libretto probably for the simple sake that it’s easier to sing and doesn’t end with an unaccented “e.”

As a score it has to be one of the biggest musical in-jokes ever written. Inverted and re-worked, neo-classical, tone clusters from Mozart mesh with bolder quotations from Barbiere, Rosenkavalier, Lohengrin, Schubert and a few others. Although chided by some of the stiffer and stuffier music critics at its premiere for its cheeky reliance on pastiche it’s a work than can make a strong theatrical and music impression in the right hands.

LA Opera has a limping familiarity with modern works and commissions. The success d’estime of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel, staged in 2006 by his partner Julie Taymor and starring the relatively unknown at the time Eric Owens, was still fresh in everyone’s mind when they invited the creative team behind the 1986 film remake of The Fly, composer Howard Shore and cirector David Cronenberg—with designer Dante Ferretti along for the ride—to give us their operatic version of that science fiction masterpiece. (Even he reviews weren’t entertaining.)

So the announcement that we were getting a new full-scale production of The Ghosts of Versailles was met by me with not a little musical side-eye and a lot of curiosity. After attending the premiere Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion I am thrilled, and not a little surprised, to say that this production was not only an unqualified triumph but one of the greatest evenings I’ve spent in the theatre.

From the theatrical side the direction by Darko Tresnjak, who’s worked for LA Opera in the past and won a Tony for last years A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, did a magnificent job of separating, then combining and separating again, the metaphysical planes the drama takes place on so that when Beaumarchais finally decides to enter his own story it becomes shocking to the audience as well as the dramatis personae.

Tresnjak brought his production team from Gentleman’s Guide.  The massive unit set by Alexander Dodge, touted as the biggest LA Opera has ever built, presents a forced perspective version of the Queen’s Theatre at Versailles with an advancing/receding stage floor and three levels of playing space topped with a removable roof, all used to spectacular effect.

Supremely elegant costumes by Tony winner Linda Cho have half of the “ghosts” in the show dressed in white with black socks over their heads and their “headed” counterparts dressed in identical black. They are all exquisitely turned out and eschewing decay of any kind. The Figaro characters sport bright, gleaming silks and satins to highlight their living presences.

The absolutely superb lighting design by York Kennedy flowed and ebbed with each new scene or  musical movement and fantastic digital projections by Aaron Rhyne of an extraordinarily high quality melded seamlessly with the staging. We also had a the occasional circus aerialist and gymnastics by a group called 2 Ring Circus and how all of this coalesced without distraction is a tribute to all concerned.

The large ensemble of singing actors engaged could hardly have been bettered and it’s fitting to start with the first voice you hear, “Woman with Hat” of Victoria Livengood. Scene-stealing would be hardly begins to describe for this lady’s formidable gifts. Entrusted with some of the best punchlines in the piece, both vocal and verbal, she also has the uncanny ability to disappear on stage when necessary to the story and not take attention away from the principlals—until the necessary moment arrives to deliver the comic coup de grace.

The young couple of Florestine and Léon, played by Stacey Tappan and Brenton Ryan, mere youngsters themselves, negotiated their tricky, high-lying, roles (very reminiscent of the Rosenkavalier Sophie and Octavian) with security and aplomb. Robert Brubaker as the villain Bégearss was unstinting in his malevolence and the power with which he rang out over Corilgiano’s massive orchestral forces. If his treachery seemed cartoonish at times it’s only because of the desperate heights his character has to ascend to in order to foil Figaro’s escapades.

Tenor Joshua Guerrero made a wonderful impression as Count Almaviva with a handsome presence and a fervent sound he brought to the last act ensemble, “Oh God of love, O Lord of Light.” His wife Rosina, the Countess Almaviva, was Guangun Yu whose soprano shimmered in all of the sumptuous melodies she’s entrusted with here. Especially lovely was the duet with the delightful Susanna of mezzo Lucy Schaufer, “As summer brings a wistful breeze” in Act II.

The Figaro of Lucas Meachem was explemplary both for his physicality in this very demanding role and his vocalism, which shared equal amounts of gentle restraint and power. His invocation of the stars and constellations in his opening aria, aided and abetted by the production team in most spectacular fashion, was one of the unexpected highlights of the evening.

The finale of the first act takes place in the Turkish Embassy of Paris and it’s a comic and musical free-for-all featuring an Egyptian Singer who is also the lover of the Turkish Ambassador. For this literal “party piece” cameo appearance, the LA Opera had the wit to engage Patti LuPone as the singer Samira.  Ms. Lupone was our Widow Begbick in Weill’s Mahagonny back in 2007 and even further back in history the Dorothy Chandler was the first out of town tryout location for Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita before it went to Broadway.

I have always been a great fan of Ms. Lupone’s although I’ve never had a chance to see her live. I’ve also been absolutely stupefied by complaints about the clarity of her diction until last night when I heard her utter her opening phrases while simultaneously placing the voice in her (nasal) mask. Luckily it didn’t last long. Ms. Lupone had what appeared to be an absolutely hilarious time, along with the audience, making her entrance on a Schiaparelli pink elephant with a seemingly effortlessly adjustable head. She was miked discreetly but, frankly, by the end of her number was belting out some pretty formidable sounds, with only minor adjustments to the original vocal line. The house was brought down in proper fashion.

And what of our two lovers? Christopher Maltman as Beaumarchais displayed a luxuriant baritone that allowed for easy ascension in this fairly high-lying role. His piano singing was especially full and rich in quality. Patricia Racette was magnificent as Antionette/Antonia,  every inch the regal queen.  Her voice and diction were superb and her opening scena got the evening off to a proper dramatic start. She’s the kind of singer you really need to see live to enjoy because although her actual vocal quality isn’t particularly exciting she absolutely knows how to put an aria across the footlights and is a riveting stage presence.

James Conlon in the pit showed an absolute mastery of the score and LA Opera Orchestra played like angels for him. Through an evening of very challenging harmonies and swift changes of tempo they alighted on each new melody with precision and a transparency that I hadn’t enjoyed in this work before.  (It also appears the composer has tightened up Act II here and there, all to the good.)

A better performance of this large and complex work couldn’t possibly be hoped for and I can’t express strongly enough what a tremendous experience it was to see live. We were “in the presence of the composer’ last night as they say.  The Angelenos, notorious for dashing down the aisles to beat everyone else out of the parking structure, stayed and cheered through all the calls and at the final Mr. Corilgano seemed deeply touched. I can only hope this production travels and gets filmed eventually for posterity. In the meantime five more performances remain, so if you miss this once-in-a-lifetime event, you’ll get no pity from me.

Photos: Craig Matthew

  • Krunoslav

    “The trouble with washing garbage,” some old Broadway hack tells William Goldman in THE SEASON, “is when you’re done, it’s still garbage.”

  • armerjacquino

    Lucy Schaufer’s album (the word ‘recital’ doesn’t seem quite right here) is now available in the US and is quite lovely:

    I recommend it highly. Full disclosure: Lucy and I are pals, although we weren’t when I bought and fell in love with the album.

    • warmke

      Thanks for the disclosure; some of the most atrocious singing I’ve heard on an operatic stage came from Ms. Shaufet, so I’m not going to pretend I’m rushing off to grab it. For me, a non vocal talent masquerading as a ” personality”.

      • armerjacquino

        Thank you for feeling the need to tell me.

  • Will

    Marie Antoinette was called Antonia exclusively at home growing up in Austria. Her mother, Maria Theresa, named all of her daughters Maria so within the family, they were addressed and referred to by their second names, such as Antonia. When she arrived in France, her name was simply translated into French as Marie Antoinette.

    A good idea if you know the Beaumarchais plays and are interested in history is to read Antonia Fraser’s magnificent biography of Marie--careful research has led her to explode most of the charges against the Queen and places her in a far more positive light than the usual accounts rehashed from older prejudiced sources.

    • Milady DeWinter

      And in the realm of fiction, the haunting 2002 novel “Versailles” by Kathryn Davis is a must-read.
      Drives me crazy when the public in general refers to her as “Marie.” As Will says, her name was “Antoinette/Antonia” -- (“Toni” or “Toinette” to her friends.)
      And the rabble always referred to her as “Antoinette.”

  • Camille

    Did LuPone use her usual Broadway voice, I hope to god? That noise she made as the Widder Begbeck was one of the awfullest caterwauling whines I ever was subjecfed to. Victoria Livengood is a great scenestealer, fer shure!

    Nice that L.A. Tried something besides the usual fare. Hope to hear it broadcast via KUSC.FM eventually.

    • As I understand it, for the regular performances of the Mahagonny LuPone sang some of the music in lower keys and I think used puntature elsewhere to stay in her comfortable tessitura. But for the company to obtain rights from the Weill foundation to telecast the performance, she had to return to the high keys etc. come scritto.

      • Camille

        Puntature, you say??

        She was employing her approximation of an “opera voice”, or she said something to that effect in an L.A. Times interview at the time, a discussion along with Audra in which she was comparing her voice to Audra’s and talking about the whole matter of how she tried to accommodate the score. Whatever she did, it sounded not bad but BAAAAD!

        And it was simply the weirdest, keening sound I have ever heard on a stage bearing utterly NO RESEMBLANCE to the voice of Mamma Rose. Ask Herzog Camille, as he was there in L.A., and was in the Tony audience the night she did Rose’s Turn.

        Come scritto didn’t have nothin’ to do with it, Cieca!!!

        • Milady DeWinter

          Puntature -- and then some! I’m sure this is familiar to many parterrians -- looks like you can peruse the whole thing, but my computer fell on to the puntature discussion:

        • Camille

          Look, Cieca—to make you feel better about Yoir Girl Patti—

          Next time you collide into Herzog Camille in transit, he says to ask him about the score and what he calls the impossible hodge podge of directions and the confusion that results therefrom in re the old Widder and how she is to be played. Also, says that she is just too important to be played as a camp figure, but the HOW (“Und in dem wie…”, ) is a baffling mess. He had to present a paper on it a couple of years ago and had the score out trying to make heads or tails of it and it was, in a word, a headscratcher, at the very least.

          This is as we saw it IN THE THEATUH, you do realise—? I have never seen a DVD of it nor do I wish to and do not know how it may have been changed or modified for release.

    • damekenneth

      The thing about Lupone’s diction is its very idiosyncratic way of being almost exaggeratedly on point one minutes and suddenly slurry and and garbled in an equally exaggerated degree, the next, sometimes within the space of a single line of a lyric. The wonderful Forbidden Broadway reviews of Gerard Alessandrini used to highlight that tendency delightfully in their spoofs of Lupone.

      • Krunoslav

        What is really shocking is how TERRIBLE she sounds before ‘the incident’…

      • Krunoslav

        Bravissima Christine Pedi!

  • Signor Bruschino

    So sad that Gelb has turned his back on this opera

    • armerjacquino

      Wasn’t it scheduled and then cancelled owing to lack of funds? That’s not really ‘turning his back’.

      • Signor Bruschino

        Gelb said at the time he was planning on bringing it back in a future season, but there are no plans for that to happen.

  • Melot’s Younger Brother

    According to the Los Angeles Times, these performances are being recorded for a CD release later this year.

  • Rackon

    Thanks. Yes, I did mean the LA production, which seems from the review to be terrific.

    I wish I had the Met Ghosts dvd which I lost in a move a couple years ago. It used to be available on a separate dvd from the Levine box set. Alas, by the time I got around to ordering a replacement it was “out of stock” and now it appears to be OOP as a single title. Single dvds of it go for $200+ on Amazon and eBay. The Levine set which contains Ghosts is $269. Neither of these option is affordable for me at the moment.

    If only my Ghosts laser disc were playable!

    • javier

      I downloaded a VHS transfer of the Met telecast a few years ago. I found the DVD I made last weekend and sent a copy of the audio to a friend who wanted to hear the opera in preparation for the LA production. I haven’t watched it in years, but I did notice how expensive the DVD is on so I feel happy with myself that I made my own DVD and kept it in my collection (I have just mostly everything with Renee Fleming in it!). I am going to see the LA production soon. The review is very favorable, but I wish that Fleming were singing Marie Antoinette instead of Racette. Fleming recorded Antionette final scene for the Guilty Pleasures CD and it’s better than Stratas’ version.

  • Bevi A Tequila

    I was lucky enough to talk with Corigliano about a year ago bout how a role premiered by Marilyn Horne could later be cast with Kristin Chenowith(in the Met revival that didn’t happen)and now be sung by Patti LuPone. He said that Gelb was a big fan of KC and shrugged his shoulders. He also said the LuPone had already been hard at work on the role vocally, and that he was very encouraged about how seriously she was preparing. It was also fascinating to hear that the delay in the premiere made it impossible for his first choices to sing the opera. He had wanted Renata Scotto for Antonia, Donald Gramm for Beaumarchais, and James McCracken for Begearss. Imagine! His treatment by the Met also revealed how unaccustomed they were at that time to deal with a living composer. It certainly wasn’t a bump-free ride.

  • Chanterelle

    I just did a preview piece about Beaumarchais — a real character, perpetually juggling business ventures, diplomacy,womanizing, lawsuits, prison, and, oh yes, writing. The CIA published an admiring report about how he persuaded Louis XVI to provide arms to the American rebels. There wasn’t space for half of his adventures.

  • SilvestriWoman

    I’m thrilled to hear of Stacey Tappan’s success. I first heard her here in Chicago at Lyric’s Opera in the Park, when she was still in their Ryan Center. Singing Sophie with Fleming and Graham, she more than held her own. The last time I heard her, she was singing La Charmeuse to Renee’s Thais, and she had the clearest coloratura of the evening. I’ve always wondered why we haven’t heard more from her.

    • Krunoslav

      I can top that-- I first heard Stacey Tappan at the original Caffe Taci up near Columbia back when she was a student. Even then it was clear she had the talent and discipline for a career. She was quite spectacular in the Adele Leigh part (Bella) at Lyric’s MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE. Glad that LAO appreciates her.