Wolf Trap Opera presents John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman’s The Ghosts of Versailles, a grand opera buffa in two acts. Directed by Louisa Muller, this production is as silly as it is masterful, and is perfect for people who are new to the Opera, such as myself.
Scenic Designer Wilson Chin achieves a fantastic undertaking– showing the splendor of the Versailles Opera House, while also showing its ruin after centuries of neglect. Impressively detailed stenciling shows what was once imposing beauty, now faded and peeling, weathered and worn. Crystal chandeliers, torn curtains, and cloth-covered furniture give the atmosphere a haunting, ethereal quality– which is directly on-mark, considering that this whole place is haunted.
An impressive 44-piece orchestra is situated at the back of the stage, conducted by Eric Melear. As the orchestra plays, the ghosts emerge from the shadows. Costume Designer David Woolard does not disappoint– the dresses and suits are as lavish and excessive as one could hope for, and Wig Designer Anne Nesmith’s powdered hair-dos (some adorned with large feathers, some with gem-covered brooches) completed the decadent look.
While the ghosts who wander the ruins of Versailles’s opera house are merely bored, the soul of Marie Antionette (soprano Melinda Whittington, in one of the most moving performances I have seen to date) is in a state of constant torment. She re-lives the panic and terror of her final days in a continual loop, and it is in this scene where I particularly enjoyed the lighting, designed by Robert H. Grimes. Marie paces before a frayed white curtain, upon which impressive shadow-work shows large, angry crowds shouting and brandishing pitchforks at her shrinking figure.
The besotted playwright Beaumarchais (baritone Will Liverman) declares his love for Marie, and vows to save her from her harrowing grief with an opera so powerful and so transcendent…that it will re-write history itself. Beaumarchais has made it his mission to save the Queen of France from her terrible fate, and the audience is now witness to an opera-within-an-opera.
For this ever-important task, Beaumarchais calls upon one of his most beloved characters, the foolish Figaro (baritone Morgan Pearse), who is entrusted with a necklace that will secure Marie’s destiny in an opera titled A Figaro for Antonia. The general plot of this opera follows characters from Beaumarchais’ previous operas, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Without giving away too much plotline, I will say that an array of characters must pursue their collective goals amongst greed, revenge, bitterness, and regret, to name a few obstacles. In the middle of it all, Figaro must deliver the necklace to safety. However, as Figaro usually does, he mishandles the situation entirely, and the meticulously-plotted plan crumbles into a state of chaos. The treacheries Begearss (tenor Robert Watson) gets his hand on the necklace, and has no intention of giving it back. Will Antonia be saved?
What shocked me most about this production was not the fantastic voices of the ensemble, or even the incredible range of musical styles…it was how simply funny the show itself was. I was always a bit intimidated by operas, but this was an absolute riot! Full of clever wit and slapstick, laughter from the audience was hearty– and often. This show did not take itself very seriously, which I found extremely refreshing. Robert Watson wriggled onstage as he sang his aria “Long Live the Worm,” comparing himself to what he believed what fierce, unstoppable predator.
King Louis XVI (Timothy Bruno) was full of snarky one-liners, and a memorable scene that began as a passionate swordfight ended in a fit of giggles. Jenni Bank thrilled the audience as Samira, a Turkish singer who put on a scandalous show. While incredibly funny, the somber moments were also extremely powerful and poignant. There was a perfect balance of drama and comedy.
And if you still have any reservations concerning opera’s reputation for being intimidating– the program provides a concise plot summary, and a screen above the stage displays subtitles, though they are rarely needed. The vocals are absolutely beautiful as well as coherent.
It’s true– I have never before had much interest in the Opera. I saw it as an arcane and ultra-refined art form, and assumed that it just wasn’t for me. However, I have a strange and (verging on obsessive) interest in anything related to Marie Antionette, so when I saw this listing I decided to take the chance. I am so glad that I asked to see The Ghosts of Versailles at The Barns at Wolf Trap– not only because of the highly entertaining plotline and stunning performances, but because it made me realize that the Opera is not only accessible– it is extremely enjoyable. This opera is a game changer– I highly recommend it!
Running Time: Approximately three hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.