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Ghosts of Versailles: Bigger or Smaller, Comic or Tragic?

The only thing more expensive than opera is war as the old kernel of wisdom reflects and therein lies the most compelling reason for scaling back composer John Corigliano's and librettist William M. Hoffman's opera spectacle The Ghosts of Versailles. Having premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991, the original full-scale opera, which, by the way, was produced in February 2015 by L.A. Opera with the American opera star Patricia Racette and Broadway powerhouse Patti Lupone, has an enormous orchestra (L.A. Opera had an onstage orchestra and a pit orchestra) and massive chorus.

For four performances in July 2015, Wolf Trap Opera at the Barns of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, presented a scaled-back version of Ghosts. Director Louisa Muller uses Opera Theatre of St. Louis' compact score that put only 44 musicians on stage.


The Dresser is still processing this wildly extravagant libretto parsed in two acts and running just over three hours with one intermission. This is a case of operas within an opera directed on stage by the dead opera playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (author of the Figaro stories The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro). Beaumarchais is obsessively trying to change history so that the tribunal of the French Revolution does not behead Marie Antoinette. So what emerges is Figaro and Suzanna getting mixed up with Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette who are all in Beaumarchais's play but also in Hoffman's libretto as anchoring characters watching all the multiple stage performances.

Act I is opera buffa and includes a scene where Turkish government official Suleyman Pasha entertains the English Ambassador at a party where fake belly dancing occurs. The lead singer-dancer is over-the-top outrageous so who, except the Dresser, would notice the silly choreography? Need I say that Patti Lupone riding a hot pink elephant got this role in the recent L.A. Opera production? But what boggles the mind is that some how Figaro infiltrates this party dressed as a harem girl so he can gather intelligence related to his former boss Count Almaviva who is being plotted against by the French Revolution villain Bégearss. And who is Bégearss? He is a character that appears in Beaumarchais' third Figaro play called The Guilty Mother which Hoffman uses to compare Marie Antoinette and Countess Almaviva.

Act II tackles the serious problem of Bégearss imprisoning Count Almaviva and everyone associated with him including his wife, her illegitimate son Léon, his illegitimate daughter Florestine as well as Figaro's Suzanna. So the playwright Beaumarchais must get Figaro to rescue them and also rescue Marie Antoinette. The Dresser hasn't mentioned that Léon and Florestine are in love but the Count, enraged with his countess over her affair with Cherubino and their child (Léon), has promised Florestine to Bégearss. If that doesn't make your head spin, then consider the music which embraces neoclassical, Romantic, aleatoric (improvisatory) and atmospheric sounds.

The verdict isn't in for the Dresser on this opera but she will say the only boring moment was a short interlude done with a closed curtain (the orchestra was then out of sight) and not a player on the static stage. The Wolf Trap singers performed well but not in the Dresser's mind remarkably. In the end, the scaled-down version of The Ghosts of Versailles makes complete sense because it allows for more productions.

Ghosts 400X250.jpg

Grace Cavalieri's poem "The Day They Gave Husbands Away" from her new collection The Man Who Got Away brings resonance to the scenic complexity of The Ghosts of Versailles. Cavalieri has the ability to meld the serious and comic together such that the emotional load is both heavy and light. This is what Ghosts attempts to achieve with its buffa first act and its bloody and wrenching second act which ends with Marie Antoinette telling Beaumarchais she cannot be saved and he cannot alter the course of history.


The curtains are blowing the trees through
...........................................the roof
The chill comes through the room
.........pushing the curtains aside
People are hugging outside laughing
.........asking for a ride
The don't know someone is dying
The curtains are red, the color of blood
......... blood lost from the
body's thirst
From the wind comes a note from the sound of his throat
F minor blowing the curtains
................................the color of blood
There are pills on the floor
The door knob breaks off
The fan blows the curtains sharply between them
She twists her hair
......................She rushes to find him
But the curtain has dropped sharply between them
................................Perhaps she will see him
on a Monday across the street in the rain
........or riding by in a cab
...............................or on a Tuesday.

Grace Cavalieri
from The Man Who Got Away

The Man Who Got Away copyright © 2015 Grace Cavalieri


Comments (1)

Grace Cavalieri:

This is an fine example of Karren Alenier taking a complex opera and burnishing it for our understanding.
My poem she uses as "a curtain line" has never served a better or more honored purpose.

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