Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Ghosts of Versailles

The 2009 Opera Theatre of St. Louis season is now over and it ended on a high note with the newly commissioned re-orchestrated The Ghosts of Versailles.   Although I usually avoid reading reviews of the operas before I attend (and even try to avoid reading the synopsis so that I can "be surprised" by stories I don't know) I did my homework on this one.   This opera was originally staged at the Metropolitan Opera by Colin Graham, the artistic director of OTSL from 1985 until his death two years ago, and I knew it was important to OTSL to get this "smaller" version commissioned and performed.  So I wanted to go into it understanding it as much as possible.  

What I expected was that I would get what I often got with a Graham-produced opera:  a spectacularly staged and acted production, superb voices, perfect balance between voice and orchestra ... and music that I didn't particularly care for.  Graham fully supported 20th century composers. I give him credit for that.  I appreciate 20th century opera much more from having listened to years of it at OTSL.  But I have a hard time with it.  I can't just sit back and enjoy it as I can with Verdi and Mozart and Puccini.  

And sometimes, try as hard as I might, I just can't sit through it.  It tires me out, because I am trying so hard to understand it, and by about 10:00 on a Thursday night I can reach my limit. Fortunately many modern operas are short.   But I knew that The Ghosts of Versailles  was not short - it was a standard three hour opera.

So last Thursday I arrived at my seat wondering if I would make it through John Corigliano's music or if I would be sneaking out at intermission.   The first twenty minutes was not promising.

I don't know enough about styles of 20th century music to be able to talk intelligently about them.  In some ways they all sound alike to me and they often fall into what I call the "whiney opera" category.  The music is in minor keys, there is no discernable melody, it all sounds angst ridden and ... well ... to my ears it whines.  The first half hour, as the ghosts of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and Beaumarchais wandered around a palely lit set, dressed in shades of gray with white hair, singing with a lot of angst,  made me feel certain that I would not last beyond intermission.  The voices were beautiful.  They were performing the music wonderfully.  The set was interesting. The costumes and makeup were ... ghostlike.   The orchestra was not overpowering.  But.  I just don't like the style of music.

And then everything changed.

The plot of The Ghosts of Versailles is complicated.  Marie Antoinette is an unhappy ghost; she believes that she was innocent and unjustly executed and she can't get her untimely end out of her mind.  Louis XVI keeps telling her to lighten up.  The ghosts of many other French aristocrats who went to the guillotine are also wandering around.  The ghost of the playwright Beaumarchais has fallen in love with Marie Antoinette and he decides to cheer her up with a new opera, an opera that will re-write history and make her live again. 

Beaumarchais waves his hand and his old familiar characters appear on the little stage at Versailles dressed in non-ghostlike colors with non-ghostlike lighting:  Figaro, Susanna, the Count Almaviva, his wife the Countess Rosina and Cherubino.  Yes, the cast from Beaumarchais' three plays about Figaro - - one of which was set to music by (among others) Rossini as The Barber of Seville and one of which was set to music by Mozart as The Marriage of Figaro.   Corigliano loosely uses the third Figaro play, in which all the characters are 20 years older, as his opera-within-an-opera in The Ghosts of Versailles.

At that moment The Ghosts of Versailles came alive despite it's ghostly cast and it never died for the rest of the night.  It was a fabulous production.   In the opera-within-an-opera Count Almaviva decides to rescue Marie Antoinette with the aid of his servant Figaro.  But Figaro suddenly states that he will not help the queen.  Beaumarchais, shocked that his character is staging a revolution, decides he himself must take the stage and set Figaro straight.  He enters the production much to the astonishment of Figaro and Susanna (who are YOU? they ask when Beaumarchais appears on stage.  I am your creator, he declaims in a musical homage to Don Giovanni.)   Beaumarchais gets things back on track by having Figaro witness the trial of Marie Antoinette which is a kangaroo court at best.  And Figaro realizes that she was set up and had no chance.  In the end they are able to save the Queen, but Marie Antoinette at the last moment decides that history should not be changed and she allows herself to be beheaded again.  She returns the love of Beaumarchais and there is a happy ending.

I enjoyed it.  I even enjoyed the music (well, most of it) as Corigliano added allusions to Mozart's operas in the opera-within-the-opera which were fun to catch.  This is an opera that has ten main characters and most of them sang brilliantly, especially James Westman as Beaumarchais and Christopher Feigum as Figaro (I do love baritones).   Sean Panikkar as Almaviva sang very well.  Elizabeth Batton stole the show as the Turkish performer Samira who rode in on a camel that looked like it was stolen off of an exotic carousel and then sang and belly danced, with Figaro behind her in disguise as a harem girl.  Maria Kanyova sang a fine Marie Antoinette (it isn't her fault that the music she was asked to sing was my least favorite in the entire opera; but even though I didn't like it I acknowledge that she sang it well).  Her portrayal of Marie Antoinette was touching although I found such an emaciated looking ghost a little distracting.   Michael Christie conducted and he is another conductor that I would like to see come back to OTSL, I truly enjoyed watching him in the pit.

It was a little long.  I understand that they cut a half hour out of the original production but I think they could have cut more.   I would have cut the corps de ballet numbers, the stage at the Loretto Hilton is too small to really appreciate them.  I also would have cut the love duet between the young lovers Leon and Florestine.  In my opinion love duets between young people never really work in modern opera because the music is just too angst ridden to make for believable young love.  So they should only be done if it is absolutely necessary to move the story forward and in this case it wasn't.

But, even running slightly too long and even with the "whiney opera" music,  I really enjoyed it.  In the first twenty minutes  I found myself wondering why 20th century composers so seldom found anything fun to put in opera and why they so seldom composed comedies.  And then Corigliano proved to me that he can compose comedy as well as anyone. Thank goodness.

This production is a co-production with the Wexford Festival in Ireland and Vancouver Opera, and it will travel to the Wexford Festival in October and the Vancouver Opera in November 2011. As I read the reviews that are coming in I realize that the opera world is  watching this production closely to see if a scaled down version of Ghosts will work.  The full production is too expensive for most opera companies and in fact the Met canceled its own revival of the "big production" that it had scheduled for the 2009-2010 season ( Kristin Chenowith was to have played the Turkish performer Samira which would have been something to see.) I think the small production worked very well so, hopefully, this opera will be accessible to more audiences in the future.

Here is the Trailer where you can see the costumes and the set.  There is also a documentary that is very interesting about the production and how it was designed.

Now that the season is over I can say that I think it was one of the best seasons I've seen in my over 20 years as a subscriber.  I say that despite the disappointing La Boheme.  The productions of Salome, Il Re Pastore, and The Ghosts of Versailles were stellar and each season has one opera I am not wild about.  Plus, this year three out of the four weeks that I went had spectacular weather in which to picnic on the lawn.  This was the first full season under the direction of the new production team (only Stephen Lord, the musical director, is an old hand) and I whole-heartedly applaud them.   The out-of-town reviews are trickling in:  Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times.  

And this:

It is quite possible that Opera Theatre of St. Louis is the leading summer opera destination in the United States.

There. I said it. Let the Glimmerglasswegians and the Santa Fesions rail and fuss, but OTSL has really got the whole package together: top quality musical offerings, exciting young singers well on the road to major careers, well-considered theatrical stagings that rival any major house (any), and an extra-musical ambiance that is just about unbeatable. Approaching the house through the lawn area profuse with candle-lit tables, free to any pre-show picnickers who care to use them, and being able to stay after the show to party, applaud, and mingle with the artists in the large Fest tent, well, it is sort of Glyndebourne without the ‘tude.

Add to the mix the fact that this troupe has consistently performed their repertoire in English, in a small house that fosters great immediacy of the theatrical experience, at competitive prices, and, good God, it is 'popular' opera! (Even when the title is not of the bread-and-butter variety). True, the Loretto Hilton lobby is cramped on SRO evenings but. . .there is always a stroll available on that candle-dotted lawn.

Next year we will see Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Eugene Onegin, both of which have been done by OTSL before (Figaro a number of times).  We will also see "the directing debut of famed designer Isaac Mizrahi with A Little Night Music, and the world premiere of a spectacular new family opera, The Golden Ticket. "   You should come.