The Ghosts of Versailles
Reviewed by Vanessa Cate
Through March 1
Some of opera’s most well-known and beloved characters are back. Count Almaviva, his wife the Countess Rosina, and of course the irrepressible Figaro himself. Composer John Corigliano and librettist William M. Hoffman’s The Ghosts of Versailles, originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and premiering in 1991, continues the stories of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Based on the third play in a trilogy by 18th century French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, the creators do however take some liberties. Though La mère coupable (or The Guilty Mother, the work on which this opera is based) employs the merry and confused antics of these classic characters, this show opens rather in the land of the dead.
Marie Antoinette (Patricia Racette), the ex-Queen of France, sits as the current Queen of the beheaded. Alongside her husband King Louis XVI (Kristinn Sigmundsson), she is cursed to relive her death by guillotine over and over again, tormented and without resolution or solace in what seems to be the theater of the damned. The other spectators are specters, all heads hauntingly departed from their bodies. In a realm outside of time, they are rather jaded at the proceedings and are happy to find anything to amuse themselves. “I’m so bored!” one ghost exclaims.
In order to appease them, and to cheer the object of his desire, Pierre Beaumarchais himself (Christopher Maltman) stages an opera to lighten the mood.
In the opera-within-an-opera (Titled “A Figaro for Antonia”), we are met with Beaumarchais’ most famous creation, Figaro (Lucas Meachem), who is immediately engaged in familiar antics. The audience of apparitions is pleased, but it only causes Marie Antoinette to succumb further into a prevailing melancholy. She wants to live again.
To win her heart, Beaumarchais declares that he can change the past itself with his words, and will have his fictional characters help her to escape while she was still alive, thereby altering the course of history and bringing her back to life.
This is an opera in part about the extraordinary power of art to produce change, and set in the time of the French Revolution we see this even more clearly.
Act I moves briskly to an absurd climax, going back and forth between the haunting purgatory of the dead and the bright and lively setting of the characters within the opera, ending in a colorful Turkish free-for-all.
Act II however changes tone completely as Figaro decides to act independently of the playwright’s confines, and we are sent into the dark and grizzly reality of the French Revolution. (Truly I have not seen so many severed heads since Game of Thrones.) The show slows down considerably here and turns from opera buffa to grand opera. If the first act was about life, the second is certainly about death, and all of the characters are confronted with mortality, regret, and broken expectations. “Nothing lasts. Not love or pain.”
The cast is far too immense to applaud each performer by name. In fact, this is LA Opera’s largest cast ever! It is a breathtaking sight to see the sheer number of performers dressed in fantastical historical frock (stunningly designed by Linda Cho). Boasting both quality and quantity, this is a powerhouse cast. Stand-outs are Guanqun Yu delivering an exquisite Rosina, Maltman carrying us through with heart and command as the lover Beaumarchais, and of course the legendary Patti LuPone as the seductive and sidesplitting Samira. I can only lament that LuPone, advertised largely alongside Racette, is on stage so briefly.
Musically, there are nods aplenty to Rossini and Mozart, but Corigliano creates something unique and varied. Lyrical, dramatic, and versatile, the music is most stunning when expressing the horror of the land of the dead and the French Revolution. Bravo to music director and conductor, James Conlon, as well as to the incredible direction of Darko Tesnjak.
This opera keeps many traditions, but does not fail to add modern flair, including acrobats and aerial artists in breath-taking display. Alexander Dodge’s audaciously sumptuous, dream-like set paired with Aaron Rhyne’s impressive projection design create a feast for the eyes. The Ghosts of Versailles is a spectacle you must see to believe.
Note: LA Opera’s 2015 Season also features both The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, and while not in order, fans of this incarnation should return to see the character’s roots.
LA Opera at The Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, 35 N. Grand Ave., Dwntwn.; Wed., Feb. 18, 7:30p.m.; Sat., Feb. 21, 7:30p.m.; Thurs., Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., March 1, 2 p.m. (213) 972-8001, http://www.LAOpera.org