June 25, 2009 8:05 pm

The Ghosts of Versailles, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Maria Kanyova and James Westman

For an opera that was a runaway hit at its Metropolitan Opera premiere 18 years ago, John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles has had a meagre performance history. Apparently, only two more professional opera companies and one conservatory took it up prior to this month, when at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis the opera has duplicated its initial success. Like Eugène Scribe’s texts for Meyerbeer, William M Hoffman’s libretto is best not subjected to careful scrutiny, but it supplies the basis for a vivid and theatrically charged evening.

The story of how the ghost of the playwright Beaumarchais, smitten by that of Marie Antoinette, tries to change her historical fate with the help of Figaro is hokey. And it is a lame climax when the queen concludes that events happened for the best after all. But the fantastical uniqueness is ultimately a source of strength. You won’t confuse this “grand opera buffa” with one of those new operas based on a novel or play that leaves you asking, “Why bother?” The framework allows for – even demands – a stunning display of eclecticism: eerie dissonance for the ghosts, wisps of Mozart and Rossini for Figaro et al, tense action scenes, engaging set pieces and one Mozartean melody of melting beauty.

Saint Louis’s staging – a co-production with the Wexford Festival, where it will be given in late October – was facilitated by a new reduced orchestration, prepared not by Corigliano, as one would expect, but by one John David Earnest. With Michael Christie conducting, there was, if memory serves, a loss of orchestral colour but not alarmingly so. The opera profited by tightening, shedding about 30 minutes, but contains nothing significantly new. If the new orchestration makes Ghosts less intimidating, there is still the question of the huge cast – you need good singers for the principal roles of Le nozze di Figaro plus half a dozen other major parts. These Saint Louis happily has.

The fine production by James Robinson is dedicated to the late Colin Graham, Saint Louis’s longtime artistic director and producer of the Met’s Ghosts, and Robinson seems to offer Graham an artistic homage as well. Despite the small stage, I sensed a kinship with Graham’s production, especially in the detail of James Schuette’s 18th-century costumes. The fragile presence of the excellent Maria Kanyova, clad in simple white as Marie Antoinette, more than once brought to mind the waiflike Teresa Stratas. ★★★★☆

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