24 Aug 2010

Aspen makes Corigliano’s Ghosts classic

When it debuted at the Met in 1991 John Corigliano’s overwrought and somewhat all-too comic Ghosts of Versailles was praised largely as a vehicle for the long-celebrated artistry of Teresa Stratas and Marilyn Horne.

The Met production journeyed to the Chicago Lyric — and then the work disappeared. Happily, Ghosts returned to life a year ago when John David Earnest’ s revised and trimmed-down version was premiered by the St. Louis Opera Theater and then exported to Ireland for the festive opening of a new house in Wexford.

Still scored, however, for 60 singers and a full-sized orchestra, the demands made by Ghosts places the work beyond the reach of many professional companies, while making it a field day for student opera enterprises. Northwestern University staged the work last season, and a third totally new production by the Aspen Opera Theatre Center brought down the certain on the 63rd season of one of the nation’s major summer festivals late in August. Edward Berkeley, Juilliard mentor who has directed the Aspen Center for three decades, built the 2011 season around the figure of Figaro. Ghosts was preceded by both Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, the first two parts of Pierre Beaumarchais’ 18th-century account of the Almavivas. (Northwestern staged the same “trilogy” during its past season.)

Ghosts fits a festival well,” said Berkeley, who directed the production, seen on August 19 in Aspen’s historic Wheeler Opera House. “And in this context it gave students a look at how different composers treat the same group of characters.” “It also gave our audience a chance to compare how they have used the same material.”

Although the reduced version — with a single intermission it runs slightly less than three hours — contains enough plot and calls for singers sufficient for three operas, the Aspen staging made clear that Ghosts is a success now worthy of entering the standard repertory. The central figure of the story is Marie Antoinette, who 200 years after she was beheaded in the French Revolution, wants to return to life. In an opera-within-an opera the story moves back to 1793 and offers a complex picture of the Almaviva family, familiar from Rossini and Mozart.


For the libretto William M. Hoffman relied heavily on The Guilty Mother, the third part of Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy. But instead of merely re-writing the story Beaumarchais, author the original, becomes the central figure of Ghosts — author, director and major figure of the inner opera, in which he and the late Empress fall in love. Although it is still more opera than can be absorbed in a single performance, Ghosts is now effective and often moving theater. (Small wonder that one heard voices in the Aspen audience express the wish to see the work again.)

Top vocal honors in Aspen went to South-African soprano Golda Schultz, now a student at Juilliard, who sang Rosina. Her tender duet with Korean mezzo Chorong Kim, now — as Beaumarchais tells it — the loving father of Léon, was the highlight of the Aspen staging. As Beaumarchais, the man who makes everything move in Ghosts, tall and lean bass-baritone Andreas Aroditis, a further Juilliard student, was amazingly adept and versatile. Christin Wismann, cover for the role in St. Louis and a member of the supporting cast in Wexford, was a delicately tragic Marie Antoinette, an ideal object for Beaumarchais’ affection. As ill-intentioned Begéarss Julius Ahn, a regular with Boston Lyric Opera, was delightfully malicious in his Aspen debut. David Williams, a recent studio artist with Berlin’s Komische Oper, left one with a strong desire to hear him as the “real” Figaro, the role that he sang with such professional aplomb in the Aspen Ghosts. And Aspen provided him with a vivacious Susanna in Kim Sogioka, a mezzo with impressive credentials in the oratorio world. Tenor Michael Kelly, highly regarded as a song recitalist, sang an aristocratic — if dissolute — Count Almaviva, while Lauren Snouffer was thoroughly engaging as his illegitimate daughter Florestine.

Major credit for the success of Aspen’s Ghosts goes, however, to Michael Christie, who conducted both the St. Louis and Wexford performances of the revised score. Still in his mid-’30s Christie, now music director of the Phoenix Symphony, began his career as assistant to Franz Welser-Möst at the Zurich Opera. Earlier in the summer he identified himself as a future Wagnerian of promise in a concert with Jane Eaglen at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder.


Conducting an orchestra that overflowed into the Wheeler Green Room, Christie’s total command of the score was impressive; he further showed that rare balance of concern for both singers and ensemble under his command. Handsome — and ghost-like — sets were by John Kasarda; lavish period costumes were the work of Marina Reti.

Finally, Ghosts could profit from further reduction. If excised, the entire scene built around Samira, the hoochie-cochie dancer at the Turkish embassy bash, would not be missed — even if this was the role on which Marilyn Horne squandered her talent at the Met.

Wes Blomster