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John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)
The Ghosts of Versailles, a grand opera buffa in two acts, libretto by William M. Hoffman (1991)
Teresa Perrotta: Marie-Antoinette (soprano)
Jonathan Bryan: Beaumarchais (baritone)
Kayla Siembieda: Susanna (mezzo-soprano)
Ben Schaefer: Figaro (baritone)
Brian Wallin: Count Almaviva (tenor)
Joanna Latini: Rosina (soprano)
Peter Morgan: Louis XVI (bass)
Christian Sanders: Patrick Honoré Bégearss (tenor)
Emily Misch: Florestine (coloratura soprano)
Spencer Britten: Léon (tenor)
Choir and Dancers of the Glimmerglass Festival
Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal/Joseph Colaneri
Jay Lesenger Director. Eric Sean Fogel Choregraphy, James Noone Scenography,
Nancy Leary Costumes
rec. December 2019, Royal Opera of Versailles, France
No printed text or translation; subtitles in English (sung language), French and German
NTSC/All Regions – DVD9 Stereo 2.0
CHÂTEAU DE VERSAILLES SPECTACLES CV5036 [2 CDs: 145:75 & DVD/Blu-Ray 149 mins]

The American composer John Corigliano comes from an earlier period than the minimalists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass and works in a broadly tonal idiom with occasional excursions into something bolder, a musical language roughly reminiscent of Prokofiev or Martinů or other such masters. He has been fairly prolific and well recorded. His best-known works are probably his first symphony, subtitled Of rage and remembrance, and his violin concerto, The red violin, both of which have been recorded several times. The Ghosts of Versailles is his only opera. It was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, a brave move considering the failure of their previous commission, Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra some thirty years earlier; this one was given a lavish production, which was a success. The work has been revived several times and has an audio recording on SACD; there was a DVD of the Met production but it is now out of print and copies command huge prices. This recording is of the French première, and it comes from the Glimmerglass Festival at Versailles, where the story is set.

Newcomers might think that the title referred to the account by two Englishwomen in the early twentieth century who visited Versailles and appeared to find themselves back in the eighteenth century, an experience they wrote up in An Adventure, which was widely read. But this is an even stranger, indeed crazier, story. It begins with the ghosts of Louis XVI and his court arriving at Versailles, along with the writer Pierre Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais was the author of the plays featuring Figaro, notably the second of the three, The Marriage of Figaro, which was the basis of Mozart’s opera. Corigliano has him in love with Marie-Antoinette, whom he calls Antonia. He wants to show his love by changing her fate through his new opera, A Figaro for Antonia, which is an opera within the opera. The time is the middle of 1793, after the execution of the king, which was in January, and before that of Marie-Antoinette, which was in October. Beaumarchais was still alive – he died in 1799.

The cast of this inner opera then arrive. They include Figaro, Susanna, the Count and the Countess (Rosina) from Mozart’s opera, but time has moved on, and here we draw on Beaumarchais’ third Figaro play, The guilty mother. The Countess has had a son, Léon, by Cherubino and the Count has had a daughter, Florestine, by an unnamed woman. These two are now grown up and in love with each other (they are, of course, unrelated). The Count and Rosina are estranged. We also have Bégearss, a scheming villain who wins the trust of the Count and wants to marry Florestine. There is a plot involving a necklace, also based on a historical incident, and the opera characters and the ghosts increasingly interact with one another. The story intended by Beaumarchais is changed and at the end Marie-Antoinette accepts her fate, Bégearss is exposed, the young lovers are free to marry and the Almavivas are reconciled and escape to America. There are several levels of unreality involved, what with ghosts, opera characters and their ultimate author all on stage together, and there is plenty of opportunity for extraordinary lines such as ‘We’re all dead’, said with relief in the first act. There is a full synopsis on the composer’s own website here, but I have given enough to give you the flavour of this work.

This story allows the composer both to approach eighteenth century idiom, and there is a little pastiche Mozart, not to mention Rossini and other composers, but the structure of the piece allows Corigliano to move away from this into his own twentieth century idiom. The very opening shows this, with the synthesizer wailing like an Ondes Martenot; it is less prominent later on. Much of the first act is occupied with setting up the very complicated situation, but in the second act there is more opportunity for lyric expansion, with some really attractive arias and ensembles, for example Rosina’s ‘O time, O thieving time, give me back my stolen years,’ and her duet with Almaviva ‘O God of love, O lord of light’ which expands into a sextet. As you may agree from these examples, the writing of the libretto is good. There are also some dramatic moments, such as when Beaumarchais enters like the statue of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, the moment when Bégearss takes everyone off to prison and the condemnation of Marie-Antoinette, now called Widow Capet by the revolutionaries. The music is very varied and attractive.

The performances are lively and convincing. I especially like Jonathan Bryan’s Beaumarchais, commanding at the beginning but increasingly at a loss as events are taken out of his hands. Brian Wallin’s Almaviva is good too, retaining the dangerousness of Mozart’s character. The women were less consistent: Joanna Latini’s Rosina was inclined to be a bit squally and Kayla Siembieda did not look anything like the traditional idea of Susanna, even after twenty years since her marriage. Teresa Perrotta characterised and sang well and was moving as Marie-Antoinette, and as she and Beaumarchais are really the main characters, the piece was well held together. Joseph Colaneri conducted with vigour and the chorus seized their few moments well. The opera exists in three versions which differ in the orchestral forces involved: the original lavish Metropolitan one has an orchestra with triple wind, a fair amount of percussion, the synthesizer and an on-stage band; the standard version reduces the orchestra to double wind but retains the band; we have here the reduced version with double wind but without the band. It seemed perfectly satisfactory to me.

The set comes in three formats: there is a DVD, a Blu-Ray disc and two CDs, all presented in a CD box. I started by watching the DVD, and I am glad I did, as it is hard enough to follow the plot even with visual clues and subtitles. You also need to know Mozart’s Figaro, but if you don’t, you should see or hear that first anyway. The sound on the DVD is quite decent – I use a soundbar to improve it. That on the CDs played through proper audio equipment is, as one would expect, a good deal better, but the absence of a libretto makes for difficult listening (you can get the libretto separately; it is published by Schirmer). I cannot play the Blu-Ray disc. The DVD and Blu-Ray disc have a bonus: a feature about Corigliano’s first symphony, played by the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller.

Despite the oddities, indeed the craziness, this is an enjoyable and in fact surprisingly coherent work. It deserves the success it has had and it grows in the mind. A number of organizations got together to make this recording possible and it is well worth hearing and seeing.

Stephen Barber

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