Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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My Antonia

June 18, 2009

James Westman as Beaumarchais and Maria Kanyova as Marie Antoinette
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

Remember what I was saying about Opera Theater of Saint Louis being at the forefront of American Opera? Well my second night in Saint Louis gave more supporting evidence for this contention with a new production of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles with a libretto by William Hoffman. It’s a huge, beguiling, and ambitious opera and even in its smaller, leaner “new revised edition” a mammoth undertaking. Saint Louis, in conjunction with Vancouver Opera and the Wexford Festival, have an excellent and amazing spectacle on their hands and they should be commended for it. Corigliano and Hoffman have put together an opera so demanding in its resources that it seemed uncertain when the score would again see the light of day. After two successful runs at the Metropolitan Opera and one at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 90s, the work had gone into hibernation. The Met abandoned plans to revive it this season in light of the economy, and after my first exposure to it I can see why. Even here the show seems to swell the Browning Theater stage with so many people and so much activity that it’s hard not to watch it all with a sense of amazement. But here is Opera Theater of Saint Louis proving that you don't have to be big to move the art forward. Corigliano and Hoffman's work may in fact be better served in a scaled down more direct approach.

The story is truly a postmodern one. It employs the play-within-a-play format, but not as a matter of arch interpretation, rather one that is actually called for in the libretto. The setting is Marie Antoinette’s court theater at Versailles and prior to curtain, the scaffolding and tarps that surround the free standing proscenium and back stage of the court theater set are overrun by a modern day construction crew managing some ongoing renovations. As the orchestra tuning slides directly into the first notes of the score, they depart and are replaced by the ghosts of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and members of their court. Marie, or as she is more familiarly referred to as Antonia, has spent two hundred years not getting over her assassination. The ghost of playwright Beaumarchais is also on hand, however, and is enlisted to cheer her up with a play that he hopes will also serve to reflect his love for Antonia and provide her with a rewrite of the history that vexes her so. The play he presents is a broadly adapted version of the real third play in Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, La Mère Coupable. Enter some of opera’s most familiar faces, Figaro, Susannah, Count Almaviva, Rosina, Cherubino, and so on. Soon there are two parallel narratives that slowly merge into one. It’s complex, but never overly so. The point is whether or not Antonia can escape another decapitation at the hands of the revolution and how this plays out in the context of her relationship with the playwright.

Sean Panikkar as Almaviva and Christopher Feigum as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

And The Ghosts of Versailes is also often very funny. Figaro is up to his usual scheming ways and there are some great bits including a scene where he poses as a belly dancer to thwart a couple of plots simultaneously. I can’t recall the last time I heard real laughter in an opera. And I mean more than a pleasant chuckle of acknowledgment, but outright guffaws. But there it was, and credit should be given to Christopher Feigum who plays this pivotal role. It’s not the biggest role, of course, and vocally he could be a bit more adroit, but it's still a winner. However, in the end this is really an opera about the relationship between Beaumarchais, played by James Westman, and Marie Antoinette, played here by Maria Kanyova. Kanyova in particular gave an excellent vocal performance and made it clear why Angela Gheoghiu had agreed to play the role in the now-abandoned Met revival. She has the best music in the show and a part with some real acting meat to it.

The staging, directed by James Robinson, is very, very smart, making a big deal out of rather modest elements. The tarps at the rear of the largely empty set are often filled with video projections to flesh out scenes and give them context. Granted, not a new idea, but one that works quite well here creating a real variety and mutability in the gray space. Color is used very effectively with the ghosts in gray plus one red accessory highlighting their manner of death and the Figaro characters in bright popping neon hues. It creates a sort of through-the-looking-glass feel to the evening, and I never found the activity on stage dull to look at.

Maria Kanyova as Marie Antoinette
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

If there are weaknesses in the opera, they stem mostly from the source material. The Ghosts of Versailles is intriguing and fun, but it may not be a great opera even by late 20th-century standards. The music can be dark and very modern at times in the ghost scenes, but the Figaro scenes are filled with an amalgam of styles and at times the big arias can sound like something right out of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Make of it what you will, but it doesn’t have a uniformity of style that would immediately recommend it as the product of a sole artisan's voice, though it may in fact be that. The libretto is far from rock solid either. Hoffman sets out with a great premise and can oscillate between comic and dramatic elements. The "inner" opera of the storyline provides for a number a expected cracks about the art form itself with ghosts proclaiming their boredom and crying out "this is not opera!" However, as the stories merge, logic begins to lose its grip, and the trial and subsequent jail scenes in Act II can drag and seem forced at times. But on balance this production's charms carry the day, and if you’re in Saint Louis and have even a passing interest in opera, you should see this production before it closes on the 27th of June. And thinks to Opera theater of Saint Louis for proving that American Opera lives on and it needn't be in the grandest of all settings to continue to exist.

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