When the Metropolitan Opera gave the world premiere in 1991 of John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” — which Los Angeles Opera brings to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night, the first of six performances running through March 1 — there was disbelief at Lincoln Center. No one at the Met had seen anything like it.
Not only was this the first new opera the company had mounted in a quarter of a century, it was the first successful new Met opera in three-quarters of a century. Librettist William M. Hoffman got a rousing standing ovation. Members of the audience threw flowers onto the stage. There were hugs and kisses all around.
The Met’s history of commissions, which went back to the 1910 world premiere of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” had been often laughable. Who remembers Walter Damrosch’s “Cyrano,” Reginald de Koven’s “The Canterbury Pilgrims,” Charles Wakefield Cadman’s “Robin Woman: Shanewis,” John Adam Hugo’s “The Temple Dancer,” Henry Hadley’s “Cleopatra’s Night” or John Lawrence Seymour’s “In the Pasha’s Garden”?
Few new Met operas lasted. Only “Fanciulla” and Puccini’s “Il Trittico” entered the standard repertory (and even they are less performed than the composer’s bigger hits). Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa,” Howard Hansen’s “Merry Mount,” Enrique Granados’ "Goyesca" and Englebert Humperdinck’s “Königskinder” are rarities but haven’t disappeared, as have the rest of the nearly two dozen Met commissions that preceded “Ghosts” had been long forgotten.
“The people who make contributions to opera are not too excited about contemporary work,” the Met’s then general manager, Bruce Crawford, told The Times shortly before the premiere of “Ghosts.” Those people weren’t too excited at many other major American opera companies either, Houston Grand Opera being the notable exception.
Now they were. “The Ghosts of Versailles” changed the dynamic of opera in this country. Suddenly it became desirable to commission contemporary work.
There were a number of reasons for this, but the main one was that “Ghosts” proved an extraordinary operatic entertainment. It was not dutiful, penny-pinching new opera; it was extravagant new opera. The cast was huge, and it was sensational, headed by a legendary dramatic soprano, Teresa Stratas. Among the numerous great voices on the Met stage opening night were Marilyn Horne and Renée Fleming.
The dramatic concept was both startling intricate and familiar, a Postmodern mélange of the French Revolution and Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, with riffs on many popular operas. Corigliano cleverly wove spectacular traditional arias into a modern-music context. There was a dazzling over-the-top production. James Levine conducted. It was a new opera for all the resources of the Met, and the public loved it.
The Met new opera jinx was broken. But, ironically, the Met had managed to put a curse on “Ghosts.” It was too much a Met opera, too big and elaborate for other companies.
There was also critical mistrust of Corigliano’s score. “Ghosts” was too cloyingly populist for progressives, too farcically Postmodern for traditionalists. The only mold “Ghosts” fit was grandly and unapologetically operatic.
“Ghosts” has been mounted only occasionally since. The premiere was broadcast on PBS, and Deutsche Grammophon released it on video (VHS and laserdisc in those days) but not on CD, in essence implying that the opera was great theater but maybe the music wasn’t so hot on its own. That video didn’t come out on DVD until 2010, when the Met included it as part of a large and expensive set celebrating Levine’s 40th anniversary with the company.
L.A. Opera’s new production of “Ghosts” will thus be a test as to whether this is a genuinely unjustly neglected opera, not simply a work with a unique place in operatic history. Making a case for the score, the company will also record it for the first time for CD.