(Previous section here.)
This opera raises a question about the relationship between history and art. Is Beaumarchais being fair to history? The opera (Corigliano and Hoffman’s, not Beaumarchais’s) is in a sense an attempt to be fair to Marie Antoinette – to give her a chance to be a human being rather than either a ghost or the caricature that she became in popular memory.
The opera gives her a chance to say that she understood why the revolutionaries killed her. Whether the historical Marie Antoinette would ever have gotten to that point is an open question. I mean, we end up liking her by the end of the opera. We’re rooting for her and Beaumarchais. But should we like her? My point here is not to object to this story on the grounds that it is not accurate. Playing with history is fine. The problem I have with it is the specific way that the opera chooses to play with history.
I tend to be skeptical of retellings of history that make people from the past likeable on our terms. It often means giving them personalities rooted in a modern rather than an early modern (or medieval or Roman or etc.) mental world. It’s reassuring to the audience, I guess, to be told that people in the past were basically like us – except that I’m not sure it’s true. I mean, if it were that easy to win Marie Antoinette over to understanding her own execution, surely the Revolution itself might have been avoided?
But that, I have a feeling, is related to the point that this opera is making about art. Art transforms. An artistic representation of the past is never going to be mainly about representing the past historically — it’s going to be about having an effect on the audience, who are by definition in the present. Both the subject matter and the readers/listeners are transformed. Within the context of Beaumarchais’s opera, the past (from Marie Antoinette’s perspective) is transformed in that it now makes sense to her, and she herself is changed in that the transformation of her past wrought by Beaumarchais makes her wish not to change her own death.
And many of the transformations that characters — not just Marie Antoinette – undergo in this opera involve social leveling. Marie Antoinette warms to Beaumarchais, a commoner. The Count and the Countess Almaviva end up happy with their, ah, I guess blended family is the best phrase. The queen of France comes to understand the French revolution – and Figaro’s knowledge of the circumstances of the queen’s trial lead him to conclude that she was treated unfairly. All of this makes sense within the context of the story, but there’s something about it that just seems a little too easy to me. I didn’t come away from this feeling like there were any open questions. And some of it was even predictable — I mean, the part where Marie Antoinette changes her mind and accepts her death? You can see that one coming a mile away. If plot twists are cars on a dark road at night, this one roars straight at you with the high-beams on.
Really good operas, even ones that seem to conclude with order restored and all that, have those residual ‘what was THAT all about?’ moments. The little scenes, or character interactions, or tensions between music and action, and so on, which are not quite explicable, or do not immediately seem to fit with one another or with the rest of the work, or which are straight-up weird – it’s these little moments, whether they take place musically or dramatically or, ideally, both, that give a really good opera its power. I didn’t find any of these in The Ghosts of Versailles. As I said before, I’ve only watched this the one time, so it’s possible that a second viewing might be different.