The Ghosts of Versailles

by Barry Drogin

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"The Ghosts of Versailles" is of classic construction: it features a plot and a subplot, which run in parallel, meeting at points, and concern themselves with the same theme. In this case, the theme is saving the one you love, through great effort, faith and craft, from pre-ordained death. It is a theme which the author of "As Is" and the composer of the "AIDS Quilt" Symphony would, in the twelve years since the Met commissioned the piece in 1979, have much on their minds.

Any modernist would be concerned, however, in how to reconcile the hopes that art often expounds with the realities that life actually brings. In "The Three-Penny Opera," the audience is explicitly told that, in real life, Macheath would be hanged, but since this is art, a ridiculous and blatantly impossible deux ex machina is devised to end the opera. Likewise, in "The Ghosts of Versailles," the playwright, who knows his Pirandello, saves the characters in his opera-within-an-opera, loosely based on the third Beaumarchais play, from the guillotine, but allows the main character, Marie Antoinette, to meet her actual, unjust, end (one need only oppose capital punishment to find her end unjust; this is, however, Marie "Let Them Eat Cake" Antoinette).

The character Beaumarchais, who acts as the creators' alter-ego, risks his creative power over his art by entering into the opera- within-an-opera to save Marie and prove his love. Similarly, the creators, by pulling this trick, risk their credibility. Within the opera, Beaumarchais accomplishes his goal and is about to spring Marie from jail, but here the opera's authors pull the strings and have Marie refuse his aid and accept her fate of historic correctness.

And so Marie dies but is united in death with her true love, while the French Revolution, partly responsible if not at least as corrupt as the aristocrats were, crows in triumph ("The Marseilles" is heard in the distance). Similarly, too many have died from AIDS, to be followed later by their lovers, while the Western world crows in triumph over its defeat of communism and the triumph of capitalism.

Is it any wonder that the bourgois audience at the Met, and the critics who serve it, have either hated the piece or christened it a wild farce that doesn't make too much sense if looked at too closely? Much of Corigliano's compositional technique is similar to John Zorn's pastiche experiments --- most critics have mistaken this for parody. Certainly there are moments when the opera- within-the-opera is intended to cheer up Marie --- but there is a great difference between comic relief and a comic opera.

Listening to the entire score, one hears very little comic opera. Corigliano has two primary modes of expression: the first, which critics have dubbed "the ghost music," a totally non-descriptive term (yes, it is used by the ghost characters, but these are the main characters), is a sort of African neo-primitive style interested in primal sounds as sounds, not as melodies or metric rhythms, and has been used by Corigliano in the hallucination scenes of "Altered States," the angry moments of his First Symphony, as well as several concerti. The Turkish scene, rather than a parody of Middle East music, is merely a more accessible version of this compositional concern. Corigliano's second primary mode is a pantonal string ensemble style reminiscent of the string writing of Bernstein and Barber and, by extension, of Shostakovitch and Mahler. This is used very effectively in the "Remembrance" portions of his First Symphony, and is brought to bear on the love and loss sections of the opera. Since this is an opera, Corigliano attempts to add to these two styles a third layer of vocal melody, most noticably when opera tradition is served by an extended solo aria, duet or quartet. Of course, since there is one composer at work, there is cross-pollination of ideas between these modes.

This is the bulk of this "Figaro for Antonia" (the working title of the opera). And who is Antonia? A member of an Antonian monastery? Someone with the skin inflammation, Saint Anthony's fire? Or are we to think of antonym, as the opposites of life (with death) and art?

A great work inspires many interpretations. As a post-modernist piece, it is also about the difficulties of, self-consciously, writing a long opera for the Met. And of course, this opera is also about some imagined ghosts in the Palace of Versailles. On that score, sometimes the opera fails, for Beaumarchais was a playwright, not a librettist or opera composer, and tribal calls to the hunt do not evoke 18th century Paris or 20th century European ghosts. This may be our prejudiced ears: perhaps Shostakovitch does not sound Russian to Russians. But mistaking representation of farce for farce, calling sense, nonsense, or quote, parody, is, I have to believe, total misinterpretation and, to those who did not see or hear the opera, misrepresentation.

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