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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Opera Review: The Glittering Undead

The Manhattan School of Music resurrects The Ghosts of Versailles.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marie Antoinette.
Painting by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
In 1991, John Corigliano's opera The Ghosts of Versailles was the toast of New York. The witty libretto (by William Hoffmann) fearlessly combined Beaumarchais' robust comedy with the grief of an uncertain afterlife and the bloody nightmare of the French Revolution. Mr. Corigliano's music is a perfect complement, a polymath score rife with references and musical riddles, incorporating modern music alongside classicism. Its vibrant, emotional heart is wrapped in gilt.

Following one revival at the Met, Ghosts was silenced in New York. This sparkling revival is mounted by the Manhattan School of Music. (The school also happens to be Mr. Corigliano's alma mater.) Due to limitations of the Borden's orchestra pit, certain large instruments (percussion, harps) had to be played elsewhere in the school, and digitally mixed with the main performance.

These performances were also the first New York stagings of a smart, spiffy production by Jay Lesenger. The massive orchestration was also carved down (by orchestrator John David Earnest) to a lean 48 players under the taut control of Steven Osgood. These two artists (exiles from New York City Opera after that company's recent turmoil) worked together to create a grand evening, and one of the most enjoyable opera performances of this spring season.

In Mr. Hoffmann's libretto, the ghost of Beaumarchais (the baritone Gideon Dabi) is asked by the now-deceased members Royal Court of Louis XVI to alleviate the Queen's suffering. He creates A Figaro for Antonia, an adaptation of La Mère coupable, ("The Guilty Mother") the last of the Figaro plays and the only one not to become a popular opera. In the course of its performance, Beaumarchais sees an opportunity to change history and save the Queen from the guillotine. Mr. Dabi was affecting as the poetic hero, who has something in common with Giordano's Andrea Chenier.

Cree Carrico was a strong leading lady as Marie Antoinette. Somewhere between a Strauss coquette and one of Puccini's doomed heroines, Ms. Carrico was (in this order) vain, petty, traumatized and ultimately, tragic. The dark heart of the second act is the trial scene, based on the historical accusations that the Queen faced from the revolutionary tribunal. It is the dark heart of the second act. The final scene (where she accepts history and chooses her own execution) featured divided, Wagnerian strings and soaring top notes: a rococo Liebestod

One of the joys of Mr. Corigliano's opera is seeing Beaumarchais bring his beloved characters back to life for one more romp. Figaro is older in this opera-within-an-opera, played here with energy and a rich low end by American baritone Nickoli Strommer. Whether vamping in a belly-dancer's silks or raging against injustice in the Reign of Terror's kangaroo court, Mr. Strommer made Figaro's wit, intelligence and appealing humanism shine through. He was the bustling comic heart of the opera, appearing to music that echoed Mozart, Rossini, and even Richard Strauss.

When Don Basilio and Dr. Bartolo are absent, a suitable villain is a must. It appears as Bégearss (yes, the name is a crude English pun) sung by tenor Aaron Short. This figure is the Count's former secretary, driven by greed, a thirst for power and vengeance on the Count. Mr. Short made the venal Bégearss (go ahead, say it out loud) into the perfect portrait of evil: cruel, merciless and utterly without humor. His  sweet tenor voice dripped with the right proportion of oil and venom.

Brett Sprague was a pleasing, if vapid Count Almaviva, finding the character's soul in the final scene when he (once again) forgives Rosina. Rebecca Krynski was a touching Countess, whose rift with the Count (both have had children out of wedlock) seems entirely one-sided. Kaitlyn Costello-Fain shone as the eternally patient maid Susanna. She spends much of this opera in the background but has her own glorious moment in the climactic prison escape.

Mr. Lesenger's production captures the vast sweep of the opera, but tells the story in compact, economical terms. It featured grand turns from Rachelle Pike, (as the Turkish dancer Samira) countertenor Anthony Bucci as Cherubino (he appears in an Act I flashback) and bass Brett Vogel as the loutish, sneezing Pasha Suleyman, a character who may have just wandered in from The Abduction of the Seraglio. The Turkish scene worked splendidly without going over the top, with Mr. Strommer's comic stylings drawing not just on Beaumarchais but on Figaro's totem animal, a certain rabbit named "Bugs."

In 2009,  Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb cited the economic crash of the year before as a reason to guillotine Ghosts, cancelling the planned revival of the opera and replacing it with a (poorly done) La Traviata. This leaner, fitter version of Mr. Corigliano's work may give this opera what it deserves,  a place in the standard repertory.

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