John CORIGLIANO (b.1938)
The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) [155.34]
Patricia Racette (soprano: Marie Antoinette), Christopher Maltman (Beaumarchais), Kristinn Sigmundsson (bass: Louis XVI), Scott Scully (tenor: Marquis), Victoria Livengood (mezzo-soprano: Woman with hat), Lucas Meachem (baritone: Figaro), Lucy Schaufer (mezzo-soprano: Susanna), Joshua Guerrera (Count Almaviva), Guanqun Yu (soprano: Rosina), Brenton Ryan (tenor: Léon), Stacey Tappan (soprano: Florestine), Robert Brubaker (tenor: Bergéass), Joel Sorensen (baritone: Wilhelm), Renée Papier (mezzo-soprano: Cherubino), Philip Cokorinos (bass: Suleiman Pasha), Patti LuPone (mezzo-soprano: Samira), Los Angeles Opera/James Conlon
rec. live, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center, February and March 2015
PENTATONE PTC5186538 SACD [80:57 + 74:37]
When nowadays we have become accustomed to the presence of the visual element on DVD or Blu-Ray for domestic listening to opera, it comes as something of a surprise to note that in the 2002 edition of The Rough Guide to Opera the existence of video was completely ignored, with one very particular exception. Corigliano’s opera The Ghosts of Versailles received a recommendation for the videotape of the original Metropolitan Opera production – simply because there was no audio recording available. And that has remained the case until now, despite the considerable number of revivals the opera has received worldwide (although mainly in a version for forces reduced from Corigliano’s original extravagant demands). Hence, this new set on CD is most welcome, and not only for the fact of its uniqueness, although it is not, as the front of the box proclaims, a “world premiere recording.”
When The Ghosts of Versailles was premièred at the Met in 1991, it was the first presentation of a new opera since the ill-fated Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber, chosen to inaugurate the new house in 1966. It was an ill-deserved catastrophe both for the composer and the company, one which effectively scared Rudolf Bing from any further attempts to stage a new opera for years – Virgil Thompson’s Lord Byron being one noted casualty. Determined to make amends for this, James Levine had originally commissioned Corigliano’s opera for the centenary of the Met but in the event it was not given for some years after the envisioned date. Perhaps determined that the result should be a success, the Met then threw all their resources at the new work with a large and very stellar cast; and it would be idle to pretend that the same degree of celebrity attaches to the singers in this new version. That said, the results are not only different in degree but also in approach.
The singers in this new recording benefit from better engineered balances between stage and orchestra, but also from increased familiarity with the idiom which enables them to give more nuanced performances and which certainly does not always demonstrate the superiority of their famous predecessors. Indeed there is only one point where the new cast is decidedly less satisfactory, and that is in the casting of Robert Brubaker as the villain Bergéass. Graham Clark in the original performances presented a real vocal and dramatic tour de force, a heroic-scaled tenor with a voice like rasping steel; and Brubaker’s more lyrically produced tones simply cannot match the histrionics of his big aria Long live the worm! with its eerily horrible squirming bass in the synthesiser. This is not Brubaker’s fault; his voice is just different, and less effective. The other tour de force in the original production was Marilyn Horne’s cameo appearance as Samira in the Turkish Embassy scene which brings Act One to an end. Here a very different approach is adopted, with the presence in the cast of Patti LuPone imported from the field of ‘musical theatre’. She actually scores some points off Horne in the more ‘ethnic’ second part of her aria, delivered with a forthright Broadway panache; but she cannot match the veteran star in the passages of high coloratura that begin the aria and bring it to an end. But for the rest, she really can sing, as indeed we should guess from her performances in Sunset Boulevard or Les Misérables.
Corigliano goes out of his way to provide opportunities for real singing for the rest of his cast, too; each of the principals have their own aria, many of them coming to a full close at the end to allow for applause, opportunities not always taken by the audience in these live performances. Oddly enough, the one exception to this rule is the character of Beaumarchais, incontestably the most prominent male character in the action, who is, however, assigned main parts in several of the concerted numbers – duets, trios and quartets – which are scattered throughout the opera. In this role Christopher Maltman makes an interesting contrast to Håkan Hagegård in the original cast: less forthright, less firmly sure of himself, and more tentative and nervous as he dares to frame his plan to save his beloved Marie Antoinette from the guillotine. In the latter role Patricia Racette is fully the equal of Teresa Stratas at the Met, with tone rather better focused; but neither can measure up to Renée Fleming in the recording she has made of the Queen’s aria Once there was a golden bird on a recital disc issued in 2014. In the original cast Fleming, not at that stage the major star she was to become, was assigned the subsidiary role of Countess Almaviva; here it is taken, and taken very well, by the creamy-toned Guanqun Yu. Lucas Meachem is excellent too as Figaro, relishing the words and getting well round Corigliano’s equivalent of Largo al factotum.
This brings me to the matter of Corigliano’s style in this opera, which can only be described as eclectic with a vengeance. The music for the ghosts, dominated by string glissandi, makes for a rather forbidding start; but then, as Beaumarchais begins to present his ‘new opera’ for the delectation of his royal master and mistress, we are presented with a series of quasi-pastiches including some almost-literal quotations from Mozart and Rossini. These are very well done, not only the ‘entrance aria’ for Figaro but also the beautiful quartet with its echoes of Cosi fan tutte and the more ‘characterful’ set pieces for Bergéass and Samira. But all of these come in the First Act, which leaves the composer somewhat bereft of material for Act Two where the plot becomes more serious – as Beaumarchais schemes to save Marie Antoinette from the guillotine by a series of stratagems, only to be foiled as the Queen herself becomes reconciled to her fate. At times here one becomes aware that the musical material, although it remains interesting, is becoming stretched a little thin; and the working out of the plot seems to be unnecessarily protracted. The sense of resolution at the end, too, is not driven home with sufficient force to make the required emotional impact. It is this failing which robs the opera of real greatness; but at the same time, it remains enjoyable and perhaps in a work described as “buffa” one should not expect anything too profound.
For the rest, the remainder of the very large cast are eminently satisfactory, and James Conlon obtains skilful playing from the orchestra while pacing the score admirably. Although The Ghosts of Versailles was generally well received by both critics and public at its initial presentation, there were a number of dissenting voices who regarded the score as both insufficiently serious-minded and lacking in musical substance. To judge from the reviews of this Los Angeles production, the opera continues to divide opinion; but the very fact that the work continues to hold the stage after twenty-five years, despite its massive demands and complexities, demonstrates clearly that it has elements that deserve revival. As I have observed, I find it thoroughly enjoyable, and if one accepts the description of it by composer and librettist as a “grand opera buffa” it seems to fit the bill admirably. The writing for the voices is generally grateful, the elements of Rossinian and Mozartian pastiche are not over-done; and, yes, there is an element of wistfulness too, tinged with a real sense of tragedy gently hinted at. As long as there are opera houses prepared to undertake the considerable effort (and costs) involved in mounting The Ghosts of Versailles, I think it will continue to hold the stage. It is a real pity that Corigliano has not been lured back to the theatre since.
The whole opera has been fitted neatly onto two very well-filled discs; the original video release conducted by James Levine lasted over twenty minutes longer, but I have not discovered whether this was the result of slower speeds, additional material on the video, or snips being made in the score; if it is the latter, then presumably any omissions have been made with the blessing of the composer. The presentation is really excellent: not only full details of all the artists involved (the heading here has been somewhat abridged), essays by composer and librettist in addition to an extensive background note by Thomas May and extracts from reviews of the 1991 production. There is also a full text, together with stage directions which help the listener to find his or her way round what is a very convoluted plot skirting the borders between fantasy and reality and passing rapidly from one to the other. Not only the box and booklet, but the individual sleeves for the discs, are illustrated by full colour photographs taken from the Los Angeles production by Darko Tresnjak – not, to judge by appearances, as elaborate as Colin Graham’s at the Met but faithfully reflecting the libretto nonetheless. The composer describes the performance and recording as a “dream come true” and he has every reason to do so. Those who know the opera will presumably already have the video, and for them this recording will come as a welcome supplement; others who have yet to encounter a significant work will find that the musical elements are well served here.
Paul Corfield Godfrey