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Opera Theatre scales down 'Versailles'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2009 - Wednesday evening a much-awaited new version of John Corigliano's 1991 "The Ghosts of Versailles" will premiere at Opera Theatre of St. Louis' festival spring season.

Of the four OTSL productions this year, "Ghosts" is the one opera insiders nationally have been looking forward to for three years. Many non-St. Louis residents, including opera professionals, are coming to St. Louis to see this version of an opera whose original popularity 18 years ago has taken on mythical proportions.

The opera by two Americans -- composer John Corigliano and librettist William M. Hoffman -- had a lavish, sold-out world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Met commissioned the opera as its first world premiere in 30 years. Success followed it to the Chicago Lyric Opera, co-commissioner of the work. The Met revived "Ghosts of Versailles" once but cancelled a planned fall 2010-11 production pleading the high cost of putting it on during the international economic downturn.

The original Met production pulled out all the stops with a large cast, a chorus of 100 and about as many non-singing extras, who are called supernumeraries. The score called for, and received, 100 musicians in the orchestra pit.

The new version has a smaller cast, chorus and orchestra. Not a small cast, mind you: there are 25 soloists, eight dancers, a chorus and a chamber orchestra. At this scale, the opera is doable in most of the world's opera houses. The composer said he and Hoffman are hoping for a more focused opera so audiences will take away the meaning that may have gotten lost in exuberantly lavish productions.

Mozart, Verdi and many other composers often reworked operas to suit different opera houses or different national audiences. Opera programs are filled with references to "the Prague edition" or "the Parma edition," etc. Corigliano and Hoffman spoke about their "St. Louis edition" at Opera Theatre's Spotlight on Opera panel discussion series Monday night at  at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road in Ladue. 

"For many years after the glorious premiere of 'The Ghosts of Versailles,' I always felt that my opera was haunted by its spectacular production," Corigliano wrote in an unpublished note to Opera Theatre. While he said that the Met production was one of the highlights of his life - he's won many honors including an Emmy and an Oscar and has a string quartet named for him - he worried. People associated the production with Prokofiev's huge "War and Peace," which cannot exist without the grandest and most expensive mounting, he said.

So, like "War and Peace," most opera houses thought "The Ghosts of Versailles" almost impossible to produce.

'A Closer Lens'

Corigliano said that he and Hoffman always felt that the opera would benefit from being seen through "a closer lens." That certainly might happen at the Loretto Hilton where the back row is closer to the stage than the first row at the Met. A more economical production with a tighter cast could focus the audience on the true nature of the work, he said. While the collaborators want it to be entertaining, they meant it to be a serious meditation on history and change, he said.

"Specifically, on how change comes about both in politics and in art," he said.

In the 1990s, the Met chose Colin Graham, OTSL's long time artistic director, as it stage director. He directed more opera premieres than any other opera director in the second half of the 20th century and was apt at the birth process.

Graham, who helped a reworked "Ghosts" become stage ready, loved the work. Unlike some modern operas that have one or two runs, then, spin into oblivion, "Ghosts" might have many lives in standard repertory, Graham told Opera Theatre board members. Graham also helped entice the Mellon Foundation to fund this new edition. His own estate is supporting the production, which is getting co-production support from the Wexford Opera Festival in southeast Ireland and Vancouver Opera in Canada.

These companies will present the production with sets, costumes and video created here. All three houses will use James Robinson's direction. He is in his first full year as the late Graham's successor as OTSL artistic director. Michael Christie will conduct. Video designer Wendell Harrington who worked with Robinson in OTSL's 2004 production of "Nixon in China " has created video to be projected on stage.

Show Within a Show

The story unfolds as an opera within an opera. Seated on stage around a smaller central stage are several historical characters, now ghosts, who have died in the French Revolution - Queen Marie Antoinette - called by her Austrian name Antonia in this opera - her husband King Louis XVI, and their court hangers-on. They are joined by a historical character who survived the tumult and died years later in his own bed: the French playwright Beaumarchais.

These decidedly unspooky ghosts are in a dreamy limbo that evokes the ravishing gardens of the Chateau of Versailles. They reconsider their lives. Only the queen is not resigned to her fate and passionately wishes to have changed her life. She broods about her unjust trial, her painful separation from her two surviving, vulnerable young children and her resulting death by guillotine before hellacious screaming mobs.

Beaumarchais, a social climber in the days of Versailles' glory, wants to woo the queen. He declares his love for her and says that it is his duty to make her laugh by staging an opera. He claims to have the power of a god to rewrite the Queen's history, "history as it should have been," he sings. He proposes that he can let her keep her head and escape by ship to Philadelphia - of all places.

On the stage-within-the-stage, there's a reunion of opera favorites, fictional characters first created by Beaumarchais for his stage plays and then used in operas by Mozart and Rossini. The royal ghosts watch the clever servant Figaro, his employer Count Almaviva, Susanna, Cherubino and Rosina.

John Corigliano gives these famous opera characters post-modern music with homage to the greats. For the Turkish Embassy party scene, Corigliano wrote music that echoes Rossini's "Italian in Algiers." To alert the audience that the story has roots in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," the countess makes her entrances to the beginning of Cherubim's love song. The story takes place 20 years after the two classic operas, and Susanna and the Countess sing about their lost youth to a melody that echoes the music of "Soave sia il vento" in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."

Despite the ghostly theme, large sections of the opera seem like a great romp with a Keystone Cops-style melee and other silliness at an embassy shindig. Still, the composer and librettist say they had serious a story to tell.

At the core of the opera the peace-seeking queen sings, "Forgiveness is the only way to freedom, this sacrifice has set me free." In fact, that is a theme of "The Marriage of Figaro."

Meeting with Corigliano

Instead of reading notes in a program from long dead composers, the St. Louis audience on Monday night could hear what the composer and writer really want audiences to take home and ponder after the opera.

"Mid-century modernists at their most fundamentalist demanded that we destroy, not merely rethink, the past to forge a new future: a demand of which the guillotine makes a terrible and perfect symbol," Corigliano said. "But our view of art was that change could come by embracing the past (the opposed worlds of the commoner Beaumarchais and the regal Marie Antoinette) and moving into the future.

"The World Wars that fired the angst and destruction that obsessed the modernists have been replaced by more evolutionary view of change," he said. "Leningrad has become St. Petersburg again without a shot being fired. Musicians and artists in the 21st century are no longer chained to the severe and limited point of view of the 20th century, despite the antique views of some living musicians and artists of the past."

Opera Theatre's large cast includes Maria Kanyova as the Queen, Kevin Glavin as King Louis XVI, James Westman as Beaumarchais, Christopher Feigum as Figaro, Elizabeth Batton as a comic Samira and Paula Murrihy as Cherubino.

"Ghosts" will have six performances through June 27 at the Loretto-Hilton Center in Webster Groves. It will be sung in its original language, English, with super title projected on two screens.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has covered opera for thee decades.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.