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CORIGLIANO: The Ghosts of Versailles

CD Button Racette, Tappan, Yu, Schaufer, Rapier, LuPone; Guerrero, Brubaker, Scully, Ryan, Maltman, Meachem, Sigmundsson; LA Opera Orchestra, Conlon. English text. Pentatone PTC 5186538 (2)

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WHEN JOHN CORIGLIANO'S  Ghosts of Versailles received its premiere in 1991, it was a major cultural event—the first new opera presented by the Met since Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra in 1967. Deploying an oversized cast and orchestra and bursting with textual and musical ingenuity, Ghosts features as a character the playwright Beaumarchais, who stages his own problematic Mère Coupable (the third play in his Figaro trilogy) as a ploy to win the affections of the late, brooding Marie Antoinette. William M. Hoffman’s ingenious libretto allows Beaumarchais to enter his own play after it doesn’t proceed according to his wishes, and Hoffman is not above such droll exchanges as “I want to live again! Can you do that, Beaumarchais?” “Yes! We shall live in Philadelphia.” “If you call that living.”

The original Met production was released on VHS, but the DVD wasn’t available until 2010; you can buy it used on Amazon for $299.99, or stream it from Met on Demand for $3.99. There hasn’t been an audio release until now. Hearing the new live recording from LA Opera’s widely praised 2015 production confirms my memory that the piece is sprawling and flawed but also fascinating and brilliant, impressive in its stylistic breadth and quite moving. The framing scenes in the afterlife among the ghosts—King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Beaumarchais—are delectably weird, with sliding strings, howling brass and otherworldly, synthesizer-enhanced textures. When the opera-within-the-opera begins, it’s as if Corigliano had put Mozart and Rossini in a blender and set it on “deconstruct,” but the composer abandons the postmodern hijinks at key moments. One of the high points in Act I is a quartet called “Look at the green here in the glade.” It is not satirizing, subverting, pastiche-ing or deconstructing anything; it’s just quite lovely and memorable.  

Christopher Maltman’s Beaumarchais anchors this performance; he’s thoroughly compelling throughout in his passionate dedication both to Marie Antoinette and to his belief in the power of art. “You were supposed to live,” he sings urgently to the Queen;  then he proceeds with a stirring aria describing the world as it might have been in that scenario (“Vast theaters play our visions. Salons ring with unheard-of sounds”). It’s inspired and inspiring. In Act II, when he conjures the Queen’s tribunal scene to demonstrate its unfairness, he’s chillingly condemnatory in his self-appointed role as her prosecutor. As Marie Antoinette, Patricia Racette is suitably regal and imperious, but she also provides the vulnerability that makes Beaumarchais’s love credible. She’s exceptionally vivid conjuring the horrible, haunting memories of her execution day (which Corigliano buttresses with menacing orchestral onslaughts). Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, as Louis, is amusingly stentorian and impatient with her complaining.

The familiar players in Beaumarchais’s opera-within-the-opera are affectionately written and rendered. When Lucas Meachem shows up as Figaro, the entire company in hot pursuit (“Oh, no. Here we go again!”), he’s like an old friend. Meachem’s charisma enables him to engage us with Figaro’s opening aria, a middle-aged man’s version of “Largo al factotum” that starts out almost maddeningly slowly but then picks up. As Count Almaviva, Joshua Guerrero provides clear, well-characterized delivery and ringing tone; he is remarkably affecting in Act II when he forgives Rosina for giving birth to Cherubino’s child. Coloratura soprano Stacey Tappan is a standout as that child (Florestine), negotiating some cruelly high writing with charm and ease. Rosina and Susanna (soprano Guanqun Yu and mezzo Lucy Schaufer, possessed of remarkably similar timbres) bond over their increasingly difficult spouses and sing a sweet, soaring duet yearning for their younger days. Patti LuPone, imported from Broadway, shows unexpected vocal versatility as Samira, the club singer at the Turkish embassy, cycling through the hurdles of Corigliano’s comically ornamental orientalisms. Robert Brubaker, as the treacherous Bégearss, delivers a magnificently malevolent rendition of the gleefully villainous aria “Long live the worm”; then, in Act II, he’s frightening in an entirely different way in the almost fascistic “Women of Paris,” in which Hoffman actually quotes a Himmler speech. 

At the end, just as Beaumarchais’s highly implausible scheme is on the verge of success, Marie Antoinette calls a halt. Racette handles this unique and challenging dramatic moment with all the requisite moral authority and vocal luster, as she, the writers and the LA Opera Orchestra under James Conlon tie the vast, variegated proceedings into a shimmering romantic package: Beaumarchais has saved his beloved Antoinette after all, through his love and his art. 

There really hasn’t been anything quite like Ghosts of Versailles, before or since, imperfections and all. This CD is an essential release.  —Joshua Rosenblum 



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