Let them eat opera: “The Ghosts of Versailles”

LOS ANGELES – A specter is haunting opera in this epic about revolution by Academy Award-winning composer John Corigliano and librettist William Hoffman. The Ghosts of Versailles is among the most ambitious, lavish, complex operas I’ve ever experienced, a fantastic fantasy about phantoms, full of meditations on the nature of theater and playwriting and ruminations on revolutionary struggles.

Versailles is the first of a trilogy that LA Opera is presenting this season as part of its “Figaro Unbound: Culture, Power and Revolution at Play” program, which includes Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and related cultural offerings around town. Figaro – a proletarian often in opposition to the aristocrats – is the protagonist in the Rossini and Mozart works. Although baritone Lucas Meachem has an important, imposing presence as Figaro in Versailles, he is not this opera’s central character.

The wildly imaginative, inventive plot of Versailles uses Beaumarchais’ 1792 play The Guilty Mother as a launching pad, and features Beaumarchais (well-drawn by English baritone Christopher Maltman) writing a play-within-a-play (or rather an opera-within-an-opera) in order to rescue a ghostly Marie Antoinette (soprano Patricia Racette), with whom the dramatist is smitten, from her dreadful fate beneath the Committee of Public Safety’s blade.

In the process, characters set in present time tread the boards in the-stage-within-a-stage to partake in the drama taking place in the past, as Corigliano and Hoffman’s show moves back and forth in time with the cinematic adeptness of an Alain Resnais New Wave film. Except another layer is added to this tapestry in that some of the dramatis personae depicted are actual historical figures. So within the story Beaumarchais is not only rewriting his own production, but trying to rewrite history, too, in the process. In his quest to save the queen from the Jacobins, Beaumarchais seems, to paraphrase Marx, to believe that: “Playwrights have merely interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” In the process of endeavoring to do so, he deals with more “notes” than a screenwriter beset by studio execs.

All this is very thought-provoking, heady stuff about the literary creative process, especially as rendered by William Hoffman, whose 1985 As Is – the first play about AIDS on Broadway – scored him an Obie and Drama Desk Award, as well as Tony and Pulitzer nominations.

Much of Act I in this 3-hour-plus production, which has rarely been performed in its entirety since Versailles‘ 1991 Metropolitan Opera debut, is an ebullient, joyous romp, although it’s kicked off on a melancholy note. The weepy ghost of Marie Antoinette and phantoms of King Louis XVI’s (Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson) court gather at her majesty’s theater in Versailles to watch Beaumarchais’ new play. Meachem’s Figaro is a scheming scamp and lovable scoundrel who, among other things, makes monkeys out of the aristocrats, in particular of Count Almaviva (Angelino Joshua Guerrero, a tenor and winner of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia 2014 contest), whom our man Figaro serves. Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu plays Rosina, the Countess Almaviva, who is estranged from her husband for committing the same marital indiscretion her husband did.

The highlight of this comical opera buffa’s first act takes place at a reception for England’s ambassador (South Korean baritone Museop Kim) at the Turkish embassy, presided over by a buffoonish Pasha Suleyman (bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos). In a showstopper, the dancing girl Samira, vivaciously, hilariously portrayed by the one, the only Patti LuPone, arrives borne on an elephant and performs a  number that suggests a Bollywood musical choreographed and directed by Busby Berkeley tripping on Purple Owsley. Versailles marks the return of the mezzo-soprano, who won Tonys for Evita and Gypsy, to LA Opera, where LuPone co-starred in Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in 2007.

The scene stealing LuPone’s gloriously whimsical pièce de résistance is sure to make ticket buyers happy to be alive, if only to witness such inspired insanity onstage. It alone is worth the price of admission to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Act II, however, veers sharply toward the tragic, as Beaumarchais frantically strives to rewrite history. The production, while remaining very creative, goes from opera buffa to grand opera. Marie Antoinette is swept up in the vortex of the French Revolution, and the production chillingly depicts the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror. The guillotine appears, along with many heads stuck on pikes borne by revolutionaries. This critic has always been struck by how art reflects and even predicts the times we live in: Given the recent wave of ISIS beheadings of group and individual hostages, it was a bit disconcerting, if fascinating, to watch as history came alive onstage. (The cartoonish depiction of the Turks was worthy of note, although to be fair most of the characters are caricaturish, including the French monarchs and nobility.)

In any case, Bégearss (tenor Robert Brubaker) is appropriately villainous and duplicitous as an opportunist who exploits the revolution – it’s appropriate that his name sounds a bit like “big ass.” Tony Award winner Lindo Cho’s costumes range from the aristocratic to the plebian to the spectral. The sheer optical opulence of Versailles‘ eye-popping sets, designed by Alexander Dodge and constructed by CBS Scenic Studios, along with Aaron Rhyne’s projections, probably surpass anything I’ve ever seen staged at the Chandler.

James Conlon makes his longtime dream of presenting a Figaro trilogy come true and alive, vividly conducting Corigliano’s good if not great score full of counterpoint. Director Darko Tresnjak pulls the disparate elements together, adroitly deploying his cast of dozens, an expert ensemble with sizzling soloists, on the boards. This opera, barely a quarter century old, points to the direction the form can take, as the medium forges a path in the 21st century, where cinema, Cirque du Soleil, the Internet, etc., are vital forces.

Lovers of the operatic art should see and hear this tour de force – and take advantage of the opportunity to bask in the presence of the great LuPone. And after seeing Versailles opera lovers will better appreciate why the French revolutionary leader Danton said: “The Marriage of Figaro caused the French Revolution.” Let them eat opera!

The Ghosts of Versailles is being performed only once more, on Sunday, March 1 at 2:00 pm at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213) 972-8001; www.laopera.com.

Photo: www.laopera.com


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.