Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wolf Trap's Ghosts of Versailles

One of the highlights of my summers in Washington D.C. is an annual pilgrimage to Wolf Trap for a picnic and a performance with a group of friends.  In the early years, we used to go to the Filene Center, get cheap lawn tickets and just picnic while watching the show. After several rainy experiences, we switched to in-house seats. And finally we moved from the large crowds in the Filene's to a more intimate atmosphere of the Barns at Wolf Trap.  Over the years we have come to appreciate the Wolf Trap Opera company for its innovative productions and impressive new voices and so the annual event became an opera event.  For me the company's strength is its repertoire of rarely performed works, such as Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias, Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream and now Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles.

I've been wanting to see The Ghosts of Versailles since it premiered in New York in 1991 and feared I would never have a chance to see it in the conservative Washington.  When I learned last year that  the Los Angeles Opera was staging it, and no less than under the direction of my compatriot Darko Trešnjak (of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder fame), I carefully studied my budget to see if I can afford a trip to LA with hotel accommodation and a ticket for the performance.

Luckily and not surprisingly, the Wolf Trap Opera came to the rescue.  And so our little group returned enthusiastically to the Barns this Sunday, to indulge in a picnic under a huge pine tree and the never-before-seen opera. After the repas, sufficiently mellowed by sangria, cold salads, Greek spinach pie, blue cheese, fruit salad and key lime pie, we were ready to take on any operatic challenge.

Wolf Trap Opera's The Ghosts of Versailles, with Beaumarchais characters on stage
Corigliano's opera is inspired by Beaumarchais's play  La mère coupable (The Guilty Mother?), but from there, the composer and his librettist William Hoffman fly off in their own multiple directions. In their story, the famed author of three Figaro plays entertains Marie-Antoinette and her jaded retinue somewhere in the other world 200 years after their deaths. Still unable to recover from the shock of her beheading, the tragic queen bemoans her destiny and claims innocence. Beaumarchais is in love with her and promises to re-write history to save her from death. In his new play, she will be abscond to England, returned to France in triumph and the history will end as it should. Through this play (an opera-within the opera) Marie-Antoinette learns about the misery of the French poor under her husband Louis XVI's rule and she comes to terms with her real-life destiny. 

To be sure, Corigliano's opera was not what I expected.  It did start with an overture that brings to mind Bela Lugosi's Dracula.  It was eerie and beautiful, and not entirely surprising. The opening scene with ghosts sitting in a theater where an orchestra enveloped in a ghostly mist played its ghostly accords also was something to be expected.  But from then on things went from silly to crazy and worse, with a melange of music styles ranging from arias and duets reminiscent of Mozart's da Ponte operas to gypsy music, and to the American musical, at which point one of the ghosts adorned with a Valkyra shield and helmet stepped in to complain: "This is not opera. Wagner is opera." 

When Turkish entertainer Samira burst onto the scene with her seductive belly dance, pulling a magician-style, never-ending scarf from her bodice, my Serbian friend leaned to me and whispered "Bosno moja!",  referring to the whining oriental melodies that were once popular in parts of former Yugoslavia.

The second act continued with offerings hinting at every possible music genre, including a scene with Marie-Antoinette in jail, looking suspiciously like Marguerite in Gounod's Faust.

The operatic journey liberates Marie-Antoinette from her death shock and as she accepts her fate, she tells Baumarchais not to change the ending because it is exactly as it should be.  The captured bird she used to sing about spreads its wings, as we learn from a huge shadow rising behind the illuminated curtain. Even though its sparse feathers make it look more like a scraggly monster than a golden bird. Marie-Antoinette walks into the sunset with her lover Beaumarchais. 

Costumes for The Ghosts of Versailles by David Woolard
I am happy to have finally seen The Ghosts of Versailles and especially that I first saw it at the Barns and not at the Met or even at the LA Opera.  Seeing it 24 years ago would likely have been a huge disappointment.  I might have expected something sophisticated like Corigliano's Clarinet Concerto, or deeply melancholic and soulful like "The  Red Violin" Concerto. But seeing this mostly fluffy concoction after a pleasant al fresco feast, in a rustic little hall at Wolf Trap was sheer pleasure.  Our little group agreed that Melinda Whittington excelled as Marie-Antoinette as did Robert Watson as the villain.  The rest of the cast was abundant with fresh and sparkling voices as most Wolf Trap operas are.  The only disappointment, although a minor one, was Morgan Pearse's Figaro.  He was merely one of the players, instead of ruling the roost, or rather the stage, with wits and antics masking a profound wisdom that gets Figaro out of every scrape. 

The Ghosts of Versailles, at times more a sit-com than an opera, turned out to be a great choice for a summer show at the Barns, one that whetted our appetite for the next season. I am sure the company won't disappoint.

While looking into Corigliano, I happened to learn that he is married to Mark Adamo, the composer of a very successful small-scale opera Little Women.  I met Adamo for an interview regarding the Washington premiere of his work whose title I can't recall.  I do not remember the year either  (perhaps 2000?), but I remember the young man in an elegant camel hair coat and black roll neck sweater, talking most seriously about his work, clearly excited that it would be presented to audiences worldwide in a VOA radio program.   

The information that Adamo and Corigliano are married makes me wonder how much two artists living together influence each other.  I could not detect any signs of Adamo in Corigliano's opus or vice-versa.  I also wonder what Adamo is doing these days.  Perhaps the Wolf Trap Opera will show us next summer.