The Ghosts of Versailles / Metropolitan Opera, 1992 (2)

(Previous part here.)

I enjoyed Corigliano’s music, but I am not sure that I have the impulse to listen to this opera over and over again. This may simply be the effect of unfamiliarity – I’ll have to dust this DVD off in six months and watch it again to see if my reaction is the same.

Even if you don’t utterly love this, it is not by any stretch boring. The introduction and first scene are musically atmospheric, with the ‘ghostly’ sounds from the orchestra and the repeating vocal lines (echoed on stage by the various figures repeating gestures, e.g. Marie Antoinette holding out her handkerchief). Characters leap from speaking to singing and back again often, which I found I liked in terms of the variety and contrast of sounds that are produced – e.g. Teresa Stratas (Marie Antoinette) at one point is alternating not just speaking and singing but yelling and singing.

When Beaumarchais’s ‘opera’ (you get a lot of bang for your buck with this Beaumarchais – he has evidently produced not just the text, but the music as well) begins, there are quotations from Mozart’s Figaro and (I think) once Papageno’s little scale. Figaro has a patter song sort of like “largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. But these are mostly scene-setting. The rest of the music for the opera-within-an-opera, while not as ‘modern sounding’ as some other parts, fits with Mozart’s music, but remains distinct. It’s not a copy of eighteenth-century music – it’s modern music that asks us to keep eighteenth-century music in mind. And there are what might be synthesizers in Bégearss’s ‘the worm is eternal’ aria. This bit sounded a little dated to me. Graham Clark’s handstand halfway through more than made up for it, however.

Here is the quartet in which the Countess (Renée Fleming) is remembering her time with Cherubino (Stella Zambalis), which has its effect on the ghostly audience, including Beaumarchais (Håken Hagegård) and Marie Antoinette. Fleming sounds lovely here. (I don’t envy her that dress, though – the neckline looks more than a little uncomfortable.)

But the music itself – I just don’t know. This is enjoyable singing, but my reaction is that 75% of what I like about this is the way the voices sound rather than the internal mechanics of the music.

While we are on the topic of enjoyable, it would be a shame to leave out this, which is Marilyn Horne’s appearance as Samira the “Turkish” entertainer.

In general, I would say that this opera is at its best when it’s playing with references or layered meanings. The parts that are more direct (e.g. the quartet above) I found I enjoyed less than the scenes that were a little more ironic or silly or self-referential.

Because on the whole, I am not sure if this is an opera that packs as much of an emotional punch as it is supposed to. It relies for part of its dramatic weight on our familiarity with the characters from Beaumarchais, and for another part on our knowledge of history. This is fine, in theory – certainly there are plenty of plays operas that use figures from history very effectively.

In this case, I think it is not history qua history, but rather the precise relationship between the history and the emotional content of the story that is bothering me a bit.

(Next section here.)

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