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OPERA REVIEW : Met Introduces Corigliano’s ‘Ghosts’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a sight at the Metropolitan Opera Thursday night so rare that probably very few in the sold-out theater could have witnessed it before. A composer and librettist took a curtain call.

More wondrous still, John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman received a deafening, rapturous standing ovation. They got flowers and garlands from the audience. They got hugs and kisses from the conductor, James Levine, and from members of the cast. First-time opera men both, they looked disbelieving, stunned.

In fact, “The Ghosts of Versailles,” commissioned by the Met and its first premiere in nearly a quarter-century, achieved on its first night the kind of popular triumph that composers, librettists and opera companies hardly dare even fantasize these days.

Its performance was entrusted to a dream cast, headed by a radiant Teresa Stratas, the reclusive soprano herself an increasingly rare sight at the Met or any other opera house. The opera was made resplendent by the kind of stylish and visually illuminating production that--at least when it refrained from camp excesses--is yet another scarcity here. And it was treated to an unprecedented eight weeks of rehearsal, ensuring finesse (from a cast of some 40 players) that is far removed from the haphazard happenings of an average Met night.

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But there is also a lot that is not at all unfamiliar to the Met, and that no doubt had a great deal to do with the opera’s ecstatic reception, and is just as likely to make “The Ghosts of Versailles” controversial. An opera about opera, it is populated by characters all opera-goers know like family--Figaro and Susanna, the Count and Countess--the characters from “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.”

Likewise, Corigliano’s score is rich in specific allusions to Mozart and Rossini operas and written in a musical style nostalgic for Richard Strauss at his most nostalgic. But then second-hand nostalgia is the conceit of the opera itself.

Hoffman’s inventive, often witty and deliberately intricate libretto (its synopsis requires four pages of the program) involves an entertainment for ghosts of the French aristocracy executed during the Revolution. The ghost of Beaumarchais (the playwright of the Figaro plays upon which the Mozart and Rossini operas were based) falls in love with the ghost of Marie Antoinette, and he proposes a new opera about Figaro in which he attempts to change history and save the queen’s head.

Time and place become increasingly confused. Figaro assumes a mind of his own, and Beaumarchais enters into his opera-within-the-opera to confront him. After two very long acts that offer everything from Marx Brothers-inspired farce to a finale of great poignancy, Marie learns to accept her death, and in her transcendent final aria joins Beaumarchais in an eternity of love.

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All of this is accomplished through a series of show-stopping arias and one coup de theatre after another. A vibrant and athletic Gino Quilico, gets a Figaro aria to end all Figaro arias. Tenor Graham Clark, who portrays the villainous Begearss like a silent-movie nasty, slinks about magnificently in an excessively theatrical “Worm” aria. Marilyn Horne hams it up impossibly as Samira, an Egyptian singer in a slapstick Turkish court.

Corigliano has also provided moments of great sensual beauty in a love duet for the Countess and Cherubino (yes, he comes back, too, in a flashback of a flashback); music of deep feeling for Beaumarchais (the very sympathetic Hakan Hagegard) and sticky sentimentality for Marie Antoinette that pervades the evening and is saved only by the sheer, affecting presence of Stratas, whose beaming soprano still sounds fresh and for whom every measure and every gesture appears a matter of great importance.

Much of this is a Corigliano we have heard before: the ghostly bits from his film score to “Altered States”; the stagy music from his theatrical concertos; the righteous nostalgia in his recent AIDS symphony, which received its Southern California premiere on Wednesday courtesy of the Pacific Symphony in Orange County. And it is a question of just how digestible it would all be without John Conklin’s surrealistic sets, which make the stage look like a miraculous, ever-changing invention, or Colin Graham’s clear-headed stage direction.

Levine conducts the huge, uniformly strong cast with fervent authority.

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The opera will be broadcast Jan. 4 at 10 a.m. on the regular weekly Met broadcast, stations vary, and televised on PBS next season.


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