© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Response: 'Ghosts' ascends to new artistic heights

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2009 - Opera Theatre of St. Louis has presented all four of its scheduled operas for the 2009 festival season now. All have additional performances; each represents the high standards the company established for itself when it was born in 1976, standards largely maintained through both boom years and in years of recession.

Two of the 2009 operas, Puccini’s “La bohème” and Mozart’s “Il re pastore,” provide satisfying evenings in the opera house, and although neither is going to etch itself indelibly in anyone’s memory – not mine anyway – both have plenty to recommend them.

Moving on, or moving up, the company’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” shows the company hitting on all the artistic cylinders necessary to produce operas worthy of esteem as works of art.

Yet “The Ghosts of Versailles” commands a special place in this season’s history and the history of the company overall. This opera, brought to the stage Wednesday evening (June 17), rocketed luminously above all this season's shows. In fact, it is an achievement beyond anything the company has produced since 1982, when Jonathan Miller and Calvin Simmons conjured a “Cosi fan tutte” that is not only indelible in the memory, but also an artistic organism to be summoned up and seen and heard as if it had been performed only yesterday, rather than a quarter century ago.

How is such quality achieved? Difficult to say, and if one could figure it out and explain it, all operas would share the greatness of that long-ago “Cosi” and Wednesday’s  “The Ghosts of Versailles.”

My supposition is, bringing such a triumph to the stage requires a willingness to take enormous risks – to perform acts of cultural terrorism, as N.Y. Times critic Edward Rothstein said of this opera’s creators. Then, everyone from the general director to the technical staff must share a profound understanding of the necessity of bringing together all the elements of the form in a delicate, difficult-to-achieve equilibrium.

All of this, the light, the sounds, the music, the singing, the rustle of fabric, the glint of swords, pauses, dances, each singer's understanding of her or his place in the show and of his or her character in the universe, the décor and the stage properties, commitment – everything must be come together, and fit together precisely in the operatic puzzle.

The original production of  “The Ghosts of Versailles” at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991 was staggeringly grand in terms of singers, stage personnel, chorus and instrumentalists, as well as technology.  The late Colin Graham, for many years artistic director of Opera Theatre, was its Merlin, and from all reports, of those in attendance at the Met or at home with their televisions, the opera packed the force of revelation. The St. Louis production, by necessity, has been scaled down. It doesn’t seem to matter, however. Less, as we have learned over time, often really is more.

The opera unfolds on several layers, which New York Times writer Allan Kozinn identified as three realities – the ghostly reality, the reality of the stage, and the malleable reality of history. The way these three realities flow back and forth and over and under one another reminds me of a Möbius strip, a surface of one side and one edge.

The realities, or worlds, are populated or informed by the royals and the rabble of the French Revolution, the characters of a new Beaumarchais opera, and historical incidents. Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI are there. The queen is central to the topsy-turvy narrative, as is the playwright Beaumarchais, who busies himself creating his opera of characters conjured up from his world of “Figaro.”

This new Beaumarchais opera is to provide a vehicle that will rescue the queen from her shadow world and serves to resurrect her and to take her from this palatial Limbo to the New World, to Philadelphia. History intrudes all the time, often proclaimed by the ghost of Louis, who doesn’t particularly care about any of these goings on but is nevertheless content to watch them progress, while being cognizant of the fact that he and everyone around him is imaginary or dead.

Most operas demand some suspension of disbelief, and a willingness on the part of the operagoer to put up with some things that don’t make a lick of sense. “The Ghosts of Versailles” is particularly demanding. For example, we must accept that a dead playwright can fall in love with a beheaded queen and that the members of royal household, all deceased, can occupy the royal residence at Versailles.

Before we dismiss this as ridiculous, it’s important to remember that much of human behavior is inexplicable -- certainty the Court of France in the 17th and 18th centuries was; and to participate in it, or to bow to it or to accept it as reasonable required an enormous abandonment of any sort of rational belief system.

That, however, does not matter: one is mesmerized by the seamlessness of the movement along the surface of the strip. And why is that? Because composer John Corigliano and playwright William T. Hoffman, and, apparently, everyone involved in the St. Louis production embraced risk and achieved the grand synthesis, the vast, complex, thrilling congregation of light and shadow, the sounds and silences the stillnesses and the movement, the music, the set and costumes and props.

All this is pieced  together seamlessly, with clear indications of human frailty and frivolity, along with grief and foolishness, with an awareness of misbehavior on a grand scale, with the obligation to both confess and to forgive, and always, always to hope and to pray for some sort of redemption.

To this, Corigliano and Hoffman and the St. Louis company brought an additional element, and that is poetry, which is to say, magic. And therein dwells the success, and the brilliance, of this magnificent show.

The ghosts are outside the stage of Beaumarchais' opera - at least at this point.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.