The Ghosts of Versailles

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

I must confess upfront that I am the target audience for The Ghosts of Versailles. William Hoffman’s intricate and clever libretto mixes historical figures with familiar fictional characters in a spectacular, Stoppardian, meta-theatrical circus act which manages, against all odds, to work on every level. John Corigliano’s inspired score walks its own tightrope of pastiche, send-up, and delicately nuanced, but always accessible postmodern sound. I have loved the opera since its 1991 Met premiere and found myself as excited as the proverbial kid in the candy shop to finally see a live production.

Hoffman’s conceit is that the ghost of Marie Antoinette (Patricia Racette) and her court haunt the palace of Versailles. Beaumarchais (Christopher Maltman), the playwright of the three Figaro plays which include "Barber of Seville" and "Marriage of Figaro," is in love with the Queen. In order to divert her, he puts on an opera based on his third, rarely performed, Figaro play, "The Guilty Mother." He assures her that his words can alter history, saving her from the guillotine and allowing her to escape with him to Philadelphia. (Which brings one of the biggest laughs in the evening). Figaro (Lucas Meachem), Susanna (Lucy Schaufer), Rosina (Guanqun Yu) and the Count (Joshua Gurerrero) take the stage and perform for their ghostly audience. But Figaro becomes infused with the revolutionary spirit of the time and decides to thwart Beaumarchais’ plan to save the Queen by improvising another ending. Beaumarchais, unable to control Figaro, enters the world of the opera to set things right.

If this thumbnail sketch sounds overly complex or extremely serious, the opera is neither. Director Darko Tresnjak does a masterful job of keeping the separate worlds and the many narrative strands clearly defined. And, as the director of the Tony Award winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Tresnjak is well equipped to mine humor from murderous deeds.

LA Opera’s production is sumptuous and wonderfully detailed. It compares quite favorably with the epic opulence of the original. Tresnjak has brought along most of his scenic designers from Gentleman’s Guide and the results are dazzling. Alexander Dodge’s beautiful Baroque theatre has just a hint of distortion to remind us that this is a congregating place for spirits, while Aaron Rhyne’s ingenious projections subtly enhance the proceedings. Linda Cho’s intelligent costume designs serve character as much as beauty.

The cast for Ghosts is as massive as the production elements, but the casting is impeccable, and all display admirable diction. Patricia Racette’s Marie Antoinette is poignantly sung, without ever losing her regal command. Maltman brings a canny charm to Beaumarchais but displays true ardor in his devotion to the Queen. Lucas Meachem’s Figaro is an unqualified delight, whether tossing off his Rossini-like patter or invading the first-act finale in drag. Guanqun Yu and Lucy Schaufer make their moments count, and their duet is one of the glories of the production. Joshua Guerrero is an understandably perplexed Count, while Robert Brubaker’s Begearss delights in his villainous plans to foil Beaumarchais’ rescue scheme. The opera is not concerned with conventional love, but Brenton Ryan and Stacey Tappan, as Leon and Florestine, ably portray that element. Broadway star, Patti Lupone, returns to LA Opera in the guest star set piece originally written for Marilyn Horne. However, MS Lupone, astride a pink elephant, makes the role entirely her own.

Ghosts of Versailles is a not-to-be-missed theatrical event.