I finished watching this the other night and I wasn’t sure what I thought. It’s a modern opera by John Corigliano (music) and William Hoffman (libretto) that riffs on eighteenth-century operas, specifically those based on Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, and the French Revolution.
I guess the French Revolution is the place to start. This after all is called The Ghosts of Versailles, right?
The conceit of this opera, story-wise, is that we are in Versailles after the Revolution, and we see the ghosts of the nobility, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Among the ghosts is Pierre Beaumarchais, who has fallen for the despondent Marie Antoinette. He offers to cheer her up with an opera that will re-write history so that rather than being executed, she lives. (And they will go to America. Beaumarchais suggests Philadelphia, to which Louis responds, rolling his eyes, with “if you call that living!” which gets a big laugh. As ever, the Met knows its audience.)
The opera that Beaumarchais offers is a pastiche of history and La mère coupable and a few other things. The basic idea is that Count Almaviva has possession of Marie Antoinette’s diamond necklace, which he will pass off to the English ambassador at a party at the Turkish Ambassador’s house with the goal of engineering the queen’s escape from prison. However, Almaviva’s false friend Bégearss, to whom he has promised his (but not the Countess’s) daughter Florestine, plans to interrupt the transaction and turn Almaviva over as an enemy of the Revolution. Florestine is in love with the Countess and Cherubino’s son Leon.
Figaro and Susanna hear of the plan, and to save Almaviva Figaro hatches a scheme to steal the necklace before the transfer can take place. During the course of an extremely buffa reception at the Turkish ambassador’s (the audience applauds the giant Pasha puppet) Figaro succeeds and escapes with the necklace.
Meanwhile, Beaumarchais has been both comforting and wooing Marie Antoinette, much to the consternation of Louis. The two men engage in a duel and run one another through, only to be reminded that they are, after all, dead — which realization makes the queen laugh for the first time since her demise. Louis is dismissive of Beaumarchais’s claims that he can change history with his opera. Marie Antoinette wants to believe him, despite her fear that the playwright will lose his soul in the process. Beaumarchais insists that he’s willing to risk this for her sake.
But Figaro has gone rogue. He will not return the necklace after all, and cries “down with Marie Antoinette!” Beaumarchais has forgotten that Figaro was always a man of the people, and that most of the time his assistance to the nobility came with a healthy amount of subversion. Beaumarchais rolls up his sleeves and enters his own opera in order to make it all work out right.
The plot is quite tangled, so perhaps it is best to hit the high points rather than go over the details. Rosina and Susanna commiserate over the changes time has made to their husbands and themselves. Leon and Florestine continue to be in love. There are captures, and escapes, and the most buffa prison scene you could ask for, and by the end the Count and Countess are reconciled, Leon and Florestine have their parents’ permission to marry, and while Beaumarchais has not saved Marie Antoinette, his art has revealed the meaning of her experiences to her and she is reconciled to her death.
But this is an opera, not just a story. There is plenty of music in it.
(Next part here.)