Review: Aspen Opera Theater makes Ghosts sing, and beautifully

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Who knew an opera by a contemporary composer could outdo Mozart and Rossini in this summer’s Beaumarchais sweepstakes? “The Ghosts of Versailles,” John Corigliano’s opera buffa, uses the characters from Beaumarchais’ plays made famous in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” two staples of the opera canon already seen this season. “Ghosts” thus completes a trilogy.

Seen Thursday in the first of two performances at the Wheeler Opera House, it not only succeeded but outdid the others in casting, impressive playing by the orchestra in the pit and imaginative and compelling direction. Critical for a comic opera, the jokes worked, both the ones on the stage and the sly references in the score to Mozart, Rossini and a few other opera composers. The final performance is Saturday.

Beaumarchais actually did write a third Figaro play, called “La Mere Coupable,” which picked up on the same characters 20 years after “Marriage,” which puts it in the French revolution. Corigliano and his librettist, William M. Hoffman, realizing that the story had too many weaknesses, expanded on its several good ideas. At the center they created a fictional relationship between Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette, whom we meet as ghosts. The playwright aims to woo the queen by presenting a play that would save her from the guillotine.

It’s a complicated plot, but Edward Berkeley’s direction made it all comprehensible. I won’t spoil the sight gags, but watch for reactions by the various characters and listen for fleeting musical references to familiar scenes in Mozart and Rossini. They drew guffaws from veteran opera-goers. When the characters become more flesh-and-blood in Act II, they can bring a tear.

Corigliano’s highly listenable score brims with arias, duets and ensembles that wink at the conventions of Mozart, Rossini and other operas. The music for the ghosts aims for eerie, softly dissonant sounds that feel suspended in time, but that makes up only a small fraction of the nearly three hours’ running time. The big musical moments are delicious to hear and, in the end, moving.

The debut production in 1991 played with the extensive resources of the Metropolitan Opera in lavish fashion. This production uses a reduction prepared for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which premiered in 2009. Although Berkeley populated the compact stage with virtually everyone in the opera program, the confines of the small house make it feel more intimate. Corigliano’s heartfelt music in the final 15 minutes exerts a stronger tug here than it did on the big stage.

And make no mistake, Hoffman’s poetic, theatrical and funny libretto, as well-crafted as it is, in the end matters less than the music. Michael Christie, who conducted the reduced orchestration in St. Louis and again in Wexford, England, led a thoroughly realized performance in the pit and on the stage. A few vocal glitches aside, the student singers caught the character of the music.

Soprano Christin Wismann as Marie Antoinette and baritone Andreas Aroditis as Beaumarchais carried the lead roles with power to spare, plangent singing and great stage presence. Adam Lau played a hilariously effete Louis XVI, ostentatiously falling asleep during the opera within the opera. Soprano Golda Schultz sang Rosina’s music with breathtaking purity and beauty. Her duets with Kim Sogiaka as Susanna and Chorong Kim as Cherubino were especially gorgeous. Julius Ahn deployed a sharply focused tenor as the villain, Begearss, his signature “Worm” aria especially intense. Baritone David Williams as Figaro seemed underpowered in this group but he had the stage presence and musical taste to pull off the role wit charm. In a comic turn as the entertaining Samira (originally sung by Marilyn Horne), Stephanie Sadownik drew laugh after laugh, all the wine singing strongly.

There really weren’t any weak points in the cast, nor, a couple of missed technical cues aside, any glaring problems in staging or orchestral matters. In the biggest challenge the Aspen Opera Theater Center has ever taken on, the company has scored big.