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Performances

Sketch of Figaro by Marina Reti courtesy of the Aspen Opera Theater Center
15 Aug 2010

Michael Christie conducts Corigliano in Aspen

Michael Christie, now 34, was too young to see John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles when it was new at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991.

John Corigliano: Ghosts of Versailles

Above: Sketch of Figaro by Marina Reti courtesy of the Aspen Opera Theater Center

 

Yet he was the obvious choice to conduct the world premiere of the revised version of the work at St. Louis Opera Theater in 2009.

“To celebrate John’s 70th birthday I had done a Corigliano festival with the Brooklyn Philharmonic,” says Christie, who then took James Robinson’s St. Louis production to Ireland to open the new opera house at Wexford. “I had worked with him; I knew his style and I knew his sounds. “Conducting Ghosts was a natural next step.”

This week Christie is on the podium for an all-new staging of the revised version by the Aspen Opera Theater Center, the music-theater wing of the Aspen Music Festival and School. “I’ve now lived with Ghosts for a year,” says the conductor, who has just wound up his 10th season as music director of the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder. “I’m totally at home with the score.”

In addition to that, Christie loves it. “I’ve watched the video of the Met production,” he says. “It’s all about stars Teresa Stratas and Marilyn Horne. “Now John has really tidied things up and made a true opera of it.” Nonetheless, Christie will be working with 60 singers on stage and an orchestra so large that it spill over into the Green Room of Aspen’s historic, 500-seat Wheeler Opera House. (With supers, the Met had 300 on stage for the original production.)

Christie further feels that the revision — it was done by John David Earnest with input from Corigliano — refines the lines of the opera-within-an-opera. “It’s now two acts instead of three and half an hour shorter than the original,” he says. “It holds together much better.”

Central figure of the outer story is Marie Antoinette, who 200 years after she was beheaded in the French Revolution, wants to return to life. The story then moves back to 1793 and offers a hilarious picture of the Almaviva family, familiar to all from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Instead of re-writing the story Mozart’s librettist, Pierre Beaumarchais and the late Empress fall in love.

“Laughter threatens to drown out the music in Act One,” Christie says, “but then comes the love story, and the opera has a very serious side. “Much of it is breathtakingly beautiful!” Although it’s wrong to see the score as “Mozartian,” Mozart, he says, is everywhere in it.

In mid-summer Christie spent three days in Aspen rehearsing singers. “It’s a different ‘take’ on opera,” he says. “Corigliano’s vocabulary is very specific, yet he leaves the orchestra quite free — almost improvisational at times.” In Ghosts the orchestra, he explains, is at the service of what is on stage. It’s up to the conductor to keep the singers moving and to keep the orchestra with them. “It’s an usual role for a conductor,” he says. “If you’re used to being in charge, this opera is not for you.”

Christie focused on opera at the outset of his career, having served for three years as assistant to Franz Welser-Möst in Zurich. With Ghosts he returns to the pit with performances of Verdi’s Traviata and Wuthering Heights by Hollywood master Bernard Hermann at Minnesota Opera. In 2011 he returns to St. Louis to conduct John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer.

Edward Berkeley, his Juilliard mentor who has directed the Aspen Opera Center for three decades, has built the summer season around the figure of Figaro. Ghosts was preceded by Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. “Ghosts fits a festival well,” say Berkeley, who directs the production “and in this context it gives students a look at how different composers treat the same group of characters.” “It gives our audience a chance to compare how they have used the same material.” He calls Corigliano “very skilled.” “He’s taken these characters beyond Beaumarchais and added his own layer to the story,” he says. He is awed by the dimensions even of the revised score. “It’s an enormous work,” he says. “It may be the biggest thing we’ve ever tried.”

Michael Christie as conductor was for Berkeley “a natural choice.” “I knew his work in Brooklyn,” he says. “He was widely praised for his mastery of Ghosts in St. Louis and Ireland.” Earlier in the summer Christie proved himself a Wagnerian of great promise with a Colorado Music Festival program that featured veteran soprano Jane Eaglen in the “Liebestod” from Tristan and the “Immolation scene” that concludes Götterdämmerung.

John Corigliano based Ghosts largely on The Guilty Mother, the third part of Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy. Sets for the production are by John Kasarda; costumes by Marina Reti.

John Corigliano’s Ghost of Versailles is on stage in Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House at 7 p.m. on August 19 and 21. For information and tickets at $25 to $50, call 1-970-925-9042 or www.aspenmusicfestival.com.

Wes Blomster

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