I was once in a production of The Marriage of Figaro where the characters of the opera shared the stage with another cast of ghosts. They observed. When anyone needed a prop, they handed it. Their raggedy costumes showed that they were clearly dead. In fact they began their theatrical existences by stepping out of pine coffins.
But in that opera only the living had music to sing. John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles felt to me to be the opera for that other cast. The members of the first cast were there as well: the count and countess Almaviva, Cherubino, Figaro and Susanna were all there, along with the count’s daughter and the countess’s son. It's like Corigliano had been there.
In addition to my cast of memory were Beaumarchais himself and the Queen of France. There is also a villain named Begrass. The opera is in fact about the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. She wishes that she had not died, and Beaumarchais promises to give her this ending.
Why am I writing about this now? The critics think Corigliano is one of their favorite composers. Among the many videos lying around the house unwatched is a copy of The Ghosts of Versailles. Perhaps now is the time to watch it and see for myself.
Berlioz would have loved this. He was the one who didn’t care at all about consistent narrative and instead only wanted to write about the interesting parts. So we have long sections of eerie ghost music. Beaumarchais and the count have a duel, which ends with Beaumarchais being stabbed and everyone laughing—they’re dead. It makes no difference. The countess and Cherubino take a trip to the Garden of Earthly Delights which results in their child. There is an ode to the worm. A mysterious giant man named Sulyman Pasha appears for no reason at all, and at the end of the first act he explodes. Just before this explosion Brunnhilde comes out to declare, “This is not an opera. Wagner is opera.”
The pasha brings entertainment in the form of Samira, a character seemingly inserted into the opera in order for Marilyn Horne to perform a truly spectacular aria. We all miss Marilyn. She is loving every minute of this.
There is the trial of the Queen of France followed by her trip to the guillotine. Teresa Stratas in the role of Marie Antoinette was wistful and lovely.
So what is opera? Opera is things that happen in opera houses, music sung by opera singers and played by opera orchestras. Above all opera is singing. There was singing, occasionally great singing, often screechy singing. It’s a pastiche, but a pretty fabulous one. Marie decides to love Beaumarchais and stay dead. Nothing in life is likely to be this fun.