OPERA NEWS - The Ghosts of Versailles
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In Review > North America

The Ghosts of Versailles

Wolf Trap Opera

CHANCES ARE THAT WOLF TRAP OPERA will be using its production of John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles as a touchstone for a long time to come. The venture was satisfying on every level, going a step beyond the company's usual high standards. The performance on July 12 boasted a well-matched cast that operated on all cylinders, musical and theatrical; fluent, sensitive conducting by Eric Melear that drew finely honed orchestral playing; and a thoroughly inspired staging. 

The reduced orchestration by John David Earnest, first performed in 2009 by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, made it possible to tackle a work normally out of bounds in the chamber-sized Barns at Wolf Trap. This still required major adjustments, but, as it turned out, for the better. Expanded for the occasion from the usual thirty or so to about forty-five, the orchestra was placed, for the first time, against the back of the stage behind a thin scrim. This meant that the set, vibrantly designed by Wilson Chin, spread beyond the proscenium, allowing the singers to be closer than ever to the audience. And that resulted in an acoustical boost from the wood walls and ceiling of the house, giving the voices a presence—OK, a loudness, but an exciting volume—not previously encountered in that space. The orchestra benefited, too, gaining a welcome touch of reverberation. All of these logistical changes helped to generate a decidedly visceral experience.

The complex layers of comedy and intrigue, melancholy and pathos in William M. Hoffman's incident-packed libretto inspired deftly detailed stage direction from Louisa Muller, who kept the action fresh and involving.  Delicious costumes by David Woolard added to the richness of the flavoring, as did the refined lighting by Robert H. Grimes. Corigilano's eclectic score, with its ingenious nods to operas past and its uber-prismatic orchestration, cast quite a spell in these surroundings. Even the arias that last a little too long, reiterate their points a little too often, proved persuasive, aided by the intensity of the vocalism. 

As Marie Antoinette, Melinda Whittington sounded steely at the start, but gradually revealed more tonal warmth to go with her consistently eloquent phrasing. Will Liverman's suave baritone and sensitive styling proved a good fit the role of Beaumarchais. Morgan Pearse made a very colorful Figaro; the baritone lost a little ground in high-lying passages, but otherwise offered admirable technical finesse and abundant dynamic nuance. With a ping in the timbre and fire behind every phrase, Robert Watson dominated the stage as bad boy Bégearss; he delivered the “Aria of the Worm” with extra bite. As Samira, Jenni Bank swiveled mightily and provided the vocal panache to match. Note, too, the elegant vocal shading from D'Ana Lombard (Rosina), Sarah Larsen (Susanna), Abigail Levis (Cherubino) and Amy Owens (Florestine). This was a notable achievement for Wolf Trap Opera: it will be a hard act to follow. —Tim Smith 

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