Ghosts and Gala
By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note these can be viewed at www.metopera.org.
Thursday, June 11
John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles ~ 3 HRS 00 MIN
Starring Teresa Stratas, Renée Fleming, Marilyn Horne, Graham Clark, Gino Quilico, and Håkan Hagegård, conducted by James Levine. From January 10, 1992.
Commissioned by the Met in 1980 to be a centerpiece of its 100th-anniversary celebration in 1983, John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles unfortunately took more than a decade to complete, finally receiving its belated world premiere in 1991. Both comic and grand, this opera takes as its centerpiece the last play in Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy – La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother). That play is set some 20 years after The Marriage of Figaro, which itself took place several years after the initial play, The Barber of Seville. Many of Beaumarchais’s original characters reappear in the final – the Count and Countess (Rosina) Almaviva, Figaro and Susanna and, in their memories, Cherubino (who apparently died in battle several years after Figaro’s marriage to Susanna). In addition to these characters, we have Beaumarchais himself, Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI and an assortment of other courtiers and French Revolutionaries.
In an impressive feat of re-imagination, Corigliano and librettist William M. Hoffmann have set this piece in an otherworldly version of Louis XVI’s court, populated by the ghosts of the familiar figures above. The twist, however, is that (the ghost of) Beaumarchais is in love with (the ghost of) Marie Antoinette and in order to cheer her up – she is still depressed about her execution – he is staging an opera for the court (based on his La Mère Coupable) which he is now calling A Figaro for Antonia, and in which he plans to change her fate and save her from execution.
So, a little unpacking — the witty, wily character of Figaro is somewhat of an alter ego for Beaumarchais himself, and in fact, the name “Figaro” comes from a Beaumarchais sobriquet, “Fils Caron” (son of Caron). Beaumarchais’s birth name was Pierre-Augustin Caron – so he is the son of Caron – or Figaro. He added the Beaumarchais much later, after he married a wealthy widow who helped him secure his first royal office. That name was derived from “le Bois Marchais” – a forest property belonging to his wife. He thought it added grandeur to his otherwise common name.
So, back to the opera (within this opera!) “A Figaro for Antonia” can be unpacked as: a fils Caron for Marie Antoinette. Now – if you follow that – you are on the path to following this story which is even more complicated – unfolding in a sort of zany Upstairs, Downstairs limbo as well as in a play within a play environment.
Back to the top level – The Ghosts of Versailles is John Corigliano’s “grand opera buffa” inspired as I have said, by Beaumarchais and his Figaro plays, and commissioned by the Met to celebrate its 100th anniversary – although not finished until eight years later. Conducted by James Levine, this special telecast stars Håkan Hagegård as Beaumarchais (Figaro’s creator) who is deeply in love with the Empress Marie Antoinette (Teresa Stratas in a heart-rending performance). He is determined to rewrite history and save her from the guillotine. A young Renée Fleming sings Rosina (the Countess Almaviva). Gino Quilico is the wily Figaro, himself, who as usual, with the help of his clever wife Susanna (Judith Christin) takes matters into his own hands, and Marilyn Horne stops the show as the exotic entertainer, Samira at a Turkish Embassy party where the plot to rescue Marie unfolds. The evil Bégearss – patterned after La Mère Coupable’s subtitle, “The Other Tartuffe” – is Graham Clark.
As the opera begins, the ghosts of the court of Louis XVI arrive at the theatre of Versailles. Bored and listless, even the King is un-moved when Beaumarchais arrives and declares his love for the Queen. As Marie Antoinette is too haunted by her own beheading to reciprocate his love, Beaumarchais announces his intention to change her fate through the plot of his new opera, A Figaro for Antonia – remember – ‘A Beaumarchais for Marie.’
In the new opera-within-an-opera, the Count Almaviva is in Paris as the ambassador from Spain. Together with his trusty manservant Figaro, he tries to rescue Marie Antoinette from the French Revolution. When things go terribly awry, Beaumarchais himself enters his opera and – with the invaluable help of Figaro and Susanna – again attempts to rescue the queen. After numerous plots and counterplots as only Beaumarchais can conceive them, everything is returned to “normal.” Marie Antoinette finally finds the resolve to accept her original fate, and she and Beaumarchais are united forever in Paradise.
About all this seeming craziness on the surface, Colin Graham has written: “the subtext of this opera is of great significance: without concern for others, there can be no resolution of your own problems or desires; without forgiveness there is no being forgiven; without self-sacrifice there can be no salvation.” So, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice are achieved through love—not self-love- but unselfish love of your fellows.
And more than 20 years later, in 2015, Richard S. Ginell of the Los Angeles Times wrote that “many still differ as to whether ‘Ghosts’ has lived up to the hype and expense of its 1991 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. But I love it, and I think it has a shot at immortality. It’s comic and serious, entertaining and erudite, silly and thoughtful, emotional and mysterious, harrowing and uplifting, intimate and over-the-top, and the more times you see it, the more you’ll find in it and the more you’ll get out of it.” Indeed, this work exposes those who deserve to be exposed for their bigotry, or hypocrisy, or their selfishness – whether it’s Figaro’s social prejudices, Almaviva’s guilty jealousy, or Marie Antoinette’s self-pity and inability to forget or forgive – all are chastened but finally forgiven.
This is another rare opportunity the Met has given us to see an opera that is rarely performed, speaks to our time, and could well become a classic.
Friday, June 12 and Saturday, June 13
At Home Gala (Encore Screening)
A re-broadcast of the Met’s recent At-Home Gala with more than 40 leading artists and members of the Met Orchestra and Chorus performing virtually from their own homes around the world. It features Met General Manager Peter Gelb and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin as hosts. Transmitted live on April 25, 2020.
An unprecedented live virtual gala and an extraordinarily uplifting event which demonstrated the power of opera to connect with audiences and bring light into people’s lives even when the world’s opera houses are dark. It was originally viewed by more than 750,000 people around the globe. If you missed it, or want to re-live the momentous musical moment, this two-day encore screening period is your chance.
Here is what I wrote for the initial event, Saturday, April 25
In its most ambitious effort yet to bring opera to audiences everywhere during the Met’s closure, the company will present an unprecedented virtual At-Home Gala, featuring more than 40 leading artists performing in a live stream from their homes all around the world. The event will be available for free on the Met’s website – https://www.metopera.org
Don’t miss this one — and ENJOY!…. especially that 5th guy on the top row below! How many of the others can you name?
1. A scene from The Ghosts of Versailles | Photograph: Metropolitan Opera Archives
2. A scene from The Ghosts of Versailles | Photograph: Metropolitan Opera Archives
3. Marilyn Horne in John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” at the Met (photo: Erika Davidson/Metropolitan Opera)
4. Teresa Stratas as Marie Antoinette and Håkan Hagegård as Beaumarchais from The Ghosts of Versailles | Photograph: Metropolitan Opera Archives
5. Met Gala Artists: Angel Blue, Erin Morley, Anita Rachvelishvili, Javier Camarena, Jonas Kaufmann, Aylin Pérez and Soloman Howard. Photograph Metropolitan Opera.
6. Photo Gallery of Met Gala Artists. Photograph Metropolitan Opera.