No one believes me, but many years ago, the Wolf Trap Opera used to mount fully staged operas like Ferruccio Busoni’s “Doktor Faustus,” Francesco Cavalli’s “L’Egisto” and Prokofiev’s “War and Peace.” Not at the Barns, in the cavernous Filene Center. Founder and patroness Kay Shouse believed that high culture should not be confined to the colder months at the Kennedy Center, and though the houses weren’t full, they had healthy, respectable attendance.
With today’s focus on the bottom line, such offerings would be unthinkable. While Wolf Trap does run an admirable apprentice program for young opera singers, its timidity in repertoire and musically unconscionable productions (a “Falstaff” at the Barns last season with five string players in the orchestra) reflect a discouraged and discouraging attitude.
So it is that we should all be grateful for “Ghosts of Versailles,” running at the Barns through Saturday. A grand opera, conceived and lavishly mounted at the Met in 1991, it was a genuine hit. But its scale still scared off other companies, so the composer John Corigliano bowed to modern realities and made a chamber version, which the company has squeezed into the small space with the orchestra at the back.
It is a dazzling thing all around. Director Louisa Muller and designer Wilson Chin have crammed a miraculous amount onstage (and often spilling off it). Despite the shallow depth they have to work with, the ensemble scenes feel free and active.
The work (libretto by William Hoffman) is a complicated imaginary sequel to the three “Figaro” plays of Pierre Beaumarchais, set by Mozart and Rossini among others. Twenty years later, the playwright is wooing Marie Antoinette (they are now both ghosts), and he promises to revise the final play in such a way as to change history and spare her the guillotine. Hilarity and pathos ensue.
And this is a problem of the work. The first act, other than a few mournful soliloquies, is full-on opera buffa, almost sitcom; while the second, other than one brief, bawdy interlude, is tragic with a slightly maudlin ending. Every scene is good theater, but the piece doesn’t seem emotionally grounded and leaves us unsure of its core. Marie’s Hallmark-card proclamation near the end — “acceptance is the only road to freedom” — certainly wasn’t worth all the trouble the creators went through to bring it to us, so we must take in all the ancillary themes as well, and there are many of them.
The large cast was talented and energetic, and I am loath to single anyone out, as all were first-rate. However, Sarah Larsen (Susanna) possesses a particularly lovely voice, well-modulated and used with smooth artistry. Robert Watson (Bégearss) has a trumpet-like heldentenor, which may one day sustain a major career. Morgan Pearse (Figaro) didn’t always convey his character’s lofty insolence, but his singing was full of color. Melinda Whittington’s (Marie) voice had ample power, if not much variety. But overall, the young, healthy voices were a pleasure to listen to.
Corigliano’s score is a pastiche, pulling from two centuries of influences. I am always disturbed hearing a synthesizer within an orchestra; it reminds us of a cancerous wave of the future that is already eliminating music jobs and turning theater pits into digital wastelands. But here it was used discreetly, and the other 43 players did a good job with some very challenging parts. (On opening night Friday, some intonation issues were still being worked out.)
The opportunity to hear a modern work of this stature comes along all too rarely, a production of this quality still rarer. The two final performances will be on Wednesday and Saturday.
Battey is a freelance writer