Decca has recently released a 21-DVD celebration of the 40 years
connection between James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera. The
present 2-DVD set is taken from the larger box but unfortunately
is not being sold separately. It has been sent for review as it
contains Levine’s first world-premiere at the Met, that of John
Corigliano’s opera The Ghosts of Versailles
This opera was originally commissioned in the early 1980s, but did not reach the Met until 1991. Its origins lie in a conversation between Levine and the composer, with the latter saying he had long been interested in writing an opera buffa
that would be on a grand scale. Levine was enthusiastic and Corigliano enlisted his friend, librettist William Hoffman. Together they delivered an opera that is indeed “buffa”, but almost Wagnerian in scope. The Met gave its all in terms of production and magnificence of casting.
The “Ghosts” of the title are Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI and their court. Though dead for 200 years, they still haunt their home at Versailles. The Queen remains sad about being executed and the ghost of the famous poet Beaumarchais attempts to cheer her up by presenting the third Figaro play “La Mère Coupable” as an opera for the court to watch, but now in the form of “A Figaro for Antonia”. By so doing he hopes to change history and save the Queen - with whom he is in love - from the guillotine. Much of the rest of the first act presents the opera within an opera with Figaro and Susanna twenty years after The Marriage of Figaro
attempting to save Almaviva (now Ambassador to France) and Rosina from the French Revolution in the person of the evil Bégearss. The first act ends in truly grand style at the residence of the Turkish ambassador. In the second act the ghosts and the characters of the opera within the opera interact. Figaro and Beaumarchais save the Queen and Almaviva and Rosina from the force of the Revolution, but the Queen decides that she is no longer embittered and must fulfil the mandate of history by dying, only to be reunited with Beaumarchais in Paradise.
It must be said that, overall, Corigliano’s music is not as distinctive as that of some of his orchestral works, with some notable exceptions such as Marie Antoinette’s “They are always with me ...”; Beaumarchais’s “Magic. It is Paris …” and Bégearss’ big aria. In the second act “As summer brings a wistful breeze”, a quartet, is a stand-out. However, the music is consistently evocative of the emotions on the stage and never bogs down. The composer’s variations on Mozart and Rossini are first-rate.
In terms of the cast, the central duo of Teresa Stratas and Håkan Hagegård could not be excelled. Ms. Stratas was a little past her prime vocally at the time of this recording and her singing is occasionally shrill, but overall she has remarkable control and vocal characterization. Hagegård is riveting when he sings and his acting is superb. James Courtney as the King is also outstanding. Of the “stage” characters, Gino Quilico is almost “over the top” in his characterization of Figaro, but his singing is lively and nuanced throughout. Judith Christin is touching as Susannah and there is a guest appearance by Marilyn Horne that has to be seen to be believed. Needless to say, Levine’s conducting and indeed control of all that is going on on-stage is masterly.
The original production of the opera was among the Met’s most magnificent, even more so than their Turandot
. In fact, it is almost too elaborate, sometimes distracting one from either the music or the plot. Music, acting and production are all well brought out on this disc, in spite of its origins in a 1992 television presentation that was recorded on laser-disc and then enhanced and transferred to DVD for this disc. Needless to say there is some lack of visual clarity, but the sound is quite serviceable. The 2-DVD set was presented to me as being playable only in Region One (USA), but the box itself seems to indicate differently. In any case, it is to be hoped that the set will become generally available as the overall performance is quite an experience.